Lawsuit alleges Cheer Athletics in Plano discriminated against deaf 9-year-old student

A Plano cheerleading academy is facing a lawsuit alleging that it refused to provide a sign language interpreter for a deaf 9-year-old girl during competitions.

The parents of the girl are suing Cheer Athletics, whose website says it provides “the world’s largest, most state-of-the-art training facility for cheer and dance,” alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A Cheer Athletics spokesperson said in a statement that the “claims made are categorically false.” The company said it provided a translator and other accommodations for the girl at its expense and advocated for the athlete to help her succeed.

“We are heartbroken to see months of hard work and commitment by the Cheer Athletics staff to help a little girl safely participate in cheerleading ultimately result in a lawsuit,” the company’s statement said.

The girl, identified in the lawsuit only by the initials A.M., started classes at Cheer Athletics in Plano for the 2021-2022 season and was placed in an introductory class, according to the lawsuit. She has since been moved to different classes, both times to more rigorous programs, the suit says.

On March 31, 2023, A.M.’s parents sent requests to three owners of the academy for a sign language interpreter, according to the suit. The parents allege they didn’t receive a response. The parents continued asking for an interpreter and were either ignored or denied until the start of this year, when lawyers became involved, “and then only for a limited ‘trial period’ at practices only,” the lawsuit alleges.

Until the start of 2024, A.M. used a device that connected to her cochlear implant, the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit, but because of her “severe to profound hearing loss” the device was not effective enough for her to hear and understand. In fact, it made it even more difficult for her to understand instructions and proved more distracting and challenging than helpful, they said.

It was made even less effective by coaches at the academy who did not speak into the microphone for the device or failed to turn it on, the lawsuit alleges. And because cheer competitions are often loud environments, attorneys said A.M.’s device, known as a Roger device, was even less useful to her in competitions.

“A lack of effective communication hinders a deaf individual’s ability to participate equally, engage with their peers, and preserve their emotional and social well-being,” the lawsuit reads.

Cheer Athletics said in its statement that the company “spared no expense conferring with experts in the field. We spoke with the child’s doctor, who said a roger device was the correct accommodation for this athlete in the allstar cheer environment. We immediately purchased the roger device at our sole expense. The mother refused the roger device and demanded a translator. A translator was then provided at our expense.”

“Our investment in this athlete surpasses tens of thousands of dollars and the accommodations provided have changed the method and manner of instruction for this athlete and the team,” the company spokesperson said. “To help this athlete succeed, we have continually advocated for this athlete to ensure she remains an integral part of her squad.”

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The lawsuit says that the parents hired an attorney in January after the academy repeatedly failed to respond or approve a sign language interpreter. Even then, the suit alleges, the academy only committed to a trial period and in written communication relayed an intention not to allow or provide an interpreter at competitions. It wasn’t until late January or early February that the academy contracted with a sign language interpreter agency, and it took another week to perform background checks and provide clearance for the interpreters to be present at practices, the suit says.

In February, A.M. was moved to less desirable and necessary roles in the cheerleading routine, attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. The decision, the academy told the parents, was because A.M. couldn’t keep her arms straight during the routine, despite the fact that other students also had bent arms in the routine where they weren’t supposed to, according to the suit.

“The choice to move A.M. also stems from an alleged safety concern over the use of interpreters and the distraction they may pose to the athletes,” the suit reads.

According to the parents, the academy also put restrictions on the interpreters. The suit alleges that interpreters are not allowed to interpret instructions or other communication from the coach during a coordinated performance, meaning that A.M. might not be informed of safety warnings and may miss learning opportunities, unlike her hearing teammates. Other restrictions include that the interpreter may only sometimes provide a music count to A.M. during practice and cannot enter the practice surface without permission from the coach, the suit says.

The suit also alleges that the academy has not informed interpreters of changes to the practice schedule, causing them to be late, even though those changes are typically communicated at least a week in advance. A.M.’s parents have been forced to communicate with the interpretation service contracted by Cheer Athletics themselves in some instances, and in others the academy failed to schedule an interpreter at all for some practices, they said.

When on March 1 the team went to a national championship, Cheer Athletics did not provide an interpreter or provide A.M. with a Roger device, as the academy previously said it would, according to the lawsuit.

“A.M. feels embarrassed and frustrated by her lack of understanding at practices and competitions,” the lawsuit reads. “Without effective communication, she is excluded from opportunities to connect with her teammates and be fully included in Defendant’s programs and services.”

The lawsuit filed by A.M.’s parents seeks, in part, to recover monetary damages and have the court implement injunctions to prevent discrimination against students with hearing disabilities, create policies to prevent discrimination and ensure fair and equal treatment, and enforce those policies.

Cheer Athletics said in its statement that the company “has decades of success with athletes with hearing loss succeeding to the highest levels in our program — including winning world championships — and will continue to provide a safe and inclusive solution — to the best of our financial ability — for all allstar cheerleaders.”