A deaf college student has filed a lawsuit against NPR for employment discrimination, claiming that the network misrepresented the terms of the internship and failed to properly accommodate her needs during her employment.
Catherine Nugent, a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court in March. Nugent, a major in business administration, alleges that the network did not give her tools she needed to communicate with supervisors. The suit also claims that Nugent was assigned to teach sign-language classes to her colleagues though she had expected to learn about marketing.
Nugent claims that NPR did not provide interpreters or interpreting software and fired her two weeks into the 10-week internship after she asked for accommodation multiple times.
“She was looking for an experience to learn about something in her field of study,” said Linda Correia, Nugent’s lawyer. “Instead, she got a high concentration of teaching the NPR staff [American Sign Language] and wasn’t given the means to communicate with the staff and supervisors.”
NPR is the only named defendant in the lawsuit. An NPR spokesperson declined to comment, citing a network policy on discussing personnel matters. In a March 24 response, the network denied that it misrepresented the internship or failed to accommodate Nugent’s needs.
According to court documents, Nugent is deaf and does not speak, and she uses ASL as her primary means of communication. Gallaudet University provides programs and services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Nugent’s lawsuit says she learned in April 2013 that NPR offered a paid marketing internship for deaf students. She interviewed for the position and was hired with a starting date of June 3, 2013.
According to the complaint, Nugent repeatedly asked for an interpreter or interpreting software, but to no avail. Unable to communicate with her colleagues, Nugent felt isolated. Her only option for communicating was through another intern who was deaf but less proficient with ASL, the lawsuit claims.
“It was horribly isolating and difficult for her,” Correia said. “An employer is required to ensure an employee is able to work and not be treated differently from other staff who do not happen to be deaf. It’s pretty basic stuff, and it’s astonishing NPR doesn’t get it.”
Nugent expected hands-on experience with NPR’s marketing work, but her lawsuit claims she was assigned to developing and teaching hourlong classes in ASL to NPR staffers. Nugent said she is not certified to teach ASL and was not given an interpreter to help her teach, except for the other intern.
The lawsuit alleges that NPR misrepresented another aspect of the internship as well. She said that on June 11, her supervisor told her that Gallaudet wanted to produce a short documentary video and a magazine wanted to interview her for an article about the internship. Nugent said the interviews were planned to coincide with NPR’s efforts to promote “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” a project to provide captioned radio to deaf people.
“[Nugent] came to understand that the primary reason for employing [her] was to assist in its public relations strategy to build enthusiasm in the media for its new outreach programming targeting deaf persons,” Correia wrote in the complaint. “NPR failed to meet its legal obligations in focusing almost exclusively on this purpose for employing [Nugent], to [her] detriment.”
Correia said she and Nugent have requested a jury trial and are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for alleged violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act.