Former intern sues NPR, alleging employment discrimination

By Ben Mook

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.

  • jonnysw

    /not mine, but kudos to the originator:

    You expected one thing, you got something else.

    Welcome to marketing.

    • trlkly

      True, but breaking the law when marketing happens a lot, too, and apparently has here. You don’t get the good publicity for accommodating deaf people if you don’t actually give the required legal accommodations to deaf people.

  • Bartholomew Allen

    QUOTE FROM ARTICLE: “the network did not give her tools she needed to communicate with supervisors”

    So, they don’t have MS Office instant messenger on the computers at NPR?

    • trlkly

      I can with 100% certainty say they did not, seeing as such a thing does not exist. The closest thing to it, being a current instant messaging service owned by Microsoft, would be Skype.

      And if you think an intern would be allowed to teleconference in and have a someone else typing out everything everyone says, you’re insane.

      • Bartholomew Allen

        Yes it exists. It’s called Microsoft Lync (formerly called Microsoft Office Communicator) and it’s an instant message program that can work across internal networks as well as the internet. I seriously use email or IM to communicate with my supervisors and co-workers about 95% of the time so I don’t know why this wouldn’t work at her job.

        • zafoquat

          Owned. Although Lync sucks. =P Worst speech-to-text known to man!

        • Polterguest

          So it isn’t actually called MS Office Instant Messenger? Nice try though.

        • Person

          This wouldn’t work bc written English and ASL are two completely different languages. Look it up. Shocking and hypocritical how a major corporation like NPR wouldn’t be aware of this and have the common decency to give their employee an adequate means of communicating..

          • Bartholomew Allen

            If you are a college student in the USA you had better know written English. If you don’t know written English then you are a failure in life who has been taught by terrible parents and teachers who have allowed you to be a failure. You are an unemployable illiterate because you do not understand the de facto written language in your own country.

          • Person

            No one said the intern is illiterate/doesn’t know written English…..

          • Bartholomew Allen

            You told me that written English and ASL are two different languages. To say that a deaf intern couldn’t communicate with email, instant messenger, or a pen and paper is to strongly imply that she doesn’t understand written English.

          • Person

            Not that she couldn’t–that she shouldn’t have to. The American with Disabilities Act guarantees Deaf people the right to an interpreter, just like people with physical disabilities have the right to wheelchair accessible ramps. A pen and paper/IM/email in one’s second language are not an adequate way to express oneself.

          • Bartholomew Allen

            Right, paying an interpreter $15 an hour to translate for an intern making $10 an hour is an effective use of resources.

  • gnomemaker

    “captioned radio”? WTF?

  • Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Former intern sues NPR, alleging employment discrimination | Current.org | Texas ASL

  • MarkJeffries

    If NPR is so liberal, why does the far left complain about NPR being corporate shills and sellouts to corporate pop culture? As I’ve said many times, if the extremes don’t like NPR, they must be doing something right.

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