Michael Argenyi’s Victory and How Universities Should Respond

Twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, some exceptionally talented people are still not able to use their talents to heal. Frequently it is the attitude of “normal” people that prevents this, not the actual condition of the people these laws seek to protect. As the Supreme Court put it, “Society’s accumulated myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as are the physical limitations that flow from actual impairment.” Catholic professional schools have a unique opportunity to combat this discrimination and thereby serve the core of their mission. They are in a position to recognize that by welcoming deaf and hard of hearing people and people with disabilities, they can contribute to a more vibrant and humanizing society for all.

The recent victory of deaf medical student Michael Argenyi is a game-changer for medical schools and other professional schools. These schools have been some of the most resistant to opening up their programs to people who are deaf and hard of hearing or have disabilities. Until now, the courts have done little to address anti-discrimination laws within these schools, focusing their efforts on K-12 schools and undergraduate programs. Argenyi v. Creighton should make every professional school question their policies.

Michael Argenyi was born deaf and from a young age learned to find very effective ways to communicate, including the use of a cochlear implant and cued speech, culminating in his graduation from Seattle University with a 3.87 GPA. After being admitted to Creighton University Medical School, another Jesuit institution, he was surprised when he was refused the accommodations that had permitted him to succeed throughout his life. Because Creighton denied them, he felt he had no choice but to withdraw; however, he did not give up on his dream of becoming a pediatrician. He filed a lawsuit against the school, and after many years of contentious litigation, finally prevailed, with a federal grand jury finding that Creighton had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This past December, the judge ordered Creighton to readmit Argenyi and pay for the necessary accommodations, so he should be well on his way to becoming a doctor as he had dreamed.

Medical schools often argue that doctors must be able to hear and speak to their patients. However, the essential function a doctor must be able to perform is to communicate effectively, with or without reasonable accommodations. This hit home when I was in Mexico with my mother recently. She injured herself and needed to obtain an emergency minor surgery. We were fortunate to be treated by a wonderful local doctor who didn’t speak English, to complement my mother’s complete lack of Spanish. I stepped in as an interpreter and was able to ensure that there was excellent communication between the doctor and patient. My mother commented afterwards that the communication with the doctor was some of the best she had ever had because of his attentiveness, patience, and willingness to answer her questions. His skills as a doctor—not as a speaker of English—came through in a critical time.

The number of doctors who themselves are members of the deaf and hard of hearing community or have disabilities is vanishingly small. While medical interpreters can provide a wonderful service, the widespread absence of doctors who themselves are fluent in sign language and other methods of communication also cuts down on the quality of care that the deaf and hard of hearing receive. A doctor who knows from life experience what it means to be deaf can be a profound gift at these times of struggle for families. They can also help advocate for patients who are not provided the services that they need.

Patients who are deaf and hard of hearing are frequently denied any way of communicating with their doctors and nurses. At one of the most critical times in life, deaf and hard of hearing patients find themselves with no way to communicate with the people who hold their life in their hands. Despite being required to provide “effective communications,” health care providers frequently choose not to do much to meet such a basic obligation. To cite one example, the Henry Ford Health System failed to provide sign language interpretation for seven weeks to a patient in one of its residential facilities. Medical errors caused by failures such as these claim the lives of deaf patients every year.

One of the most unfortunate things about this particular situation was how Creighton University—which, on the whole, is a wonderful school—fought tooth and nail against this young student. Rather than seeing a talented person who is full of compassion and a has a proven track record of success, some faculty members and officials only saw perceived burdens. Instead of trying to avoid serving this student, the university could have reflected on how educating this young man was fully consonant with its Jesuit identity and mission.

As schools across the country consider how to proceed in the wake of Argenyi, I hope that this is not a conversation confined to the general counsel’s office about new tactics of abdicating responsibility under civil rights laws. Instead, administrations should sit down with their student services, strategic planning, and general counsel’s offices to determine how best to open up their schools to people in the deaf and hard of hearing community and those with a wide range of disabilities.

Jesuit institutions in particular should engage their offices on Jesuit mission and identity, recognizing that, fundamentally, this isn’t about complying with rules and regulations but about educating and respecting the dignity of the whole person, allowing more people to use their skills and talents to heal the world. Jesuit institutions can use the words of Superior General of the Jesuits Fr. Adolfo Nicolás as their guide:

In the understanding of St. Ignatius, the principal function of a leader is to help the members of a community grow to become the living presence of God in the world. In the Ignatian concept of service, there is always the very important fact that growth leads to transformation. If there is no transformation, the process has failed.

How will they transform themselves in order to promote the inclusion of people with all types of differences and disabilities in the ministry to serve the world?