Megan Kaleah

Cultural Competency and the Deaf Community

February 25, 2021

2L Megan Kaleah explores lawyers’ professional responsibility with deaf clients

Megan Kaleah, L’22, offers a helpful visual representation to illustrate the challenges that deaf clients encounter when seeking legal representation. She starts with a large circle representing the entire pool of available attorneys. A slightly smaller circle inside of that larger circle represents the attorneys with the specific area of legal expertise that the deaf client seeks. Inside that circle is an even smaller group of attorneys who are competent in the specific area of law, and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And finally comes the smallest circle of all – one representing lawyers who check all the boxes and are culturally competent, fully able to support their deaf clients’ needs.

Kaleah took on the concept of cultural competency in her second-year research project, bringing together two of the topics she’s most passionate about: a lawyer’s professional responsibility, and supporting the Deaf community.

Kaleah first became familiar with that community when a Deaf aunt came to live with her family. Kaleah later decided to pursue American Sign Language as a foreign language in college – and ended up taking programs through two schools at once to pursue an associate’s degree in ASL. “It’s just been one of those things where I felt like I belonged,” said Kaleah. “I need to do whatever I could to identify the needs of the community and bring the awareness to other people.”

In starting her law school experience, Kaleah was interested in finding a way to bring together her interest in legal work and her support for the Deaf community. “I really saw a need for lawyers and other legal professionals who have a sense of what [deaf people’s] needs are,” said Kaleah. “I was hoping that there would be an opportunity for them to come together.” 

That opportunity arose following an incident experienced by a Deaf acquaintance of Kaleah’s. After being pulled over for a traffic violation, her acquaintance was beaten and then arrested by the police. He did not have access to an interpreter when receiving medical treatment, nor when he was held at the police department for processing. He then struggled to find an attorney who understood ADA requirements, eventually landing with an attorney who refused to advocate for an interpreter for his client. “The second I heard his story, I wanted to dig deeper,” said Kaleah.  

For Kaleah, digging deeper took the form of a research project. Working with Professor Jonathan Stubbs, she explored the gap between the legal services provided to hearing clients and to deaf clients. Kaleah writes,

If availability of attorneys is particularly limited, the deaf or hard of hearing person must advocate for themselves just to receive equitable treatment to the attorney’s hearing clients. To do so, they would have to explain the Americans with Disabilities Act to the attorney, who is supposed to be the expert in this professional relationship. This assumes that deaf and hard of hearing individuals are competent in their rights as well. Sometimes attorneys and other professionals get away with discriminating against deaf and hard of hearing persons, simply because the client is not as well versed in their rights.

That’s where the concept of cultural competence comes in. Lawyers who demonstrate cultural competence have the opportunity not only to serve their clients better, but to build better relationships of trust, explained Kaleah. “I think it is very important for lawyers … to be competent not only in the law, but to be competent in how they are working with their specific client,” Kaleah said. “Working with anybody of a different culture, you need to be aware of what their needs are,” she added.

Kaleah used her research to unpack some of the values and communication techniques that are part of Deaf culture. In one section of her study, Kaleah explains that, when working with deaf clients, “it is important to be careful with language choice until one is certain of how someone self-identifies.” Some may identify as Deaf, while some may prefer “hard of hearing,” for example. Having an awareness of the nuances of the Deaf community, Kaleah argues, equips a lawyer to better serve deaf clients.

Using the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct as a starting point, Kaleah outlines five recommended changes or enhancements to help prepare lawyers to be more culturally competent and better supportive of a wider variety of clients. For example, Rule 1.1 indicates that “a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” But, Kaleah points out, the rule does not specify what is meant by “reasonably necessary,” adding, “a lawyer should be able to identify and understand their [client’s] legal needs.” Kaleah recommended the expansion of this rule to include cultural competence.

Another recommendation focused on Rule 1.4 regarding communications. “When working with deaf and hard of hearing clients, it is more vital for communication to be prioritized,” she writes. Her recommendation called for attorneys to provide their clients with information in a manner that allows the client to fully understand the content.

Her work doesn’t stop with these recommendations. Kaleah hopes to expand upon this initial research. “Oftentimes, we, as a society, do not take the time to look at underserved populations and consider how we can best use our skills to serve them,” she writes. “Sometimes it requires additional effort to educate yourself on the issues. However, any effort is worth it if we are moving toward a more equitable and just legal system.

The University of Richmond is now one of only two U.S. higher education institutions — and the first in the Southeast — to match 100% of its electricity needs with a single solar power source. 

UR’s latest solar project, Spider Solar, is a new 20-megawatt solar energy facility that replenishes the electric grid with the same amount of renewable solar energy that the campus uses to run day-to-day operations.

The 47,000-panel solar array began operating on Dec. 31, 2020, and will produce 41,000 megawatt-hours of solar energy annually — equivalent to the annual electricity use of 5,000 homes — and will neutralize 19,720 metric tons of carbon annually.

“The University pledged in 2015 to accelerate its transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices across our campus,” said Director of Sustainability Rob Andrejewski. “With Spider Solar now online, UR’s greenhouse gas emissions will be 57% below where they were in 2009, putting us in a great position to aim for carbon neutrality.”

Spider Solar, which is located in Spotsylvania County, was built and is operated by sPower, which merged with AES' clean energy business early this year.

“Through a purchase power agreement, AES manages the day-to-day operations of the solar array, and UR agrees to pay a fixed price for the renewable energy it creates,” said Mark Detterick, senior associate vice president of campus operations. “By doing so, UR will be directly responsible for introducing more renewable energy onto the grid, while being able to better predict the University’s utility expenses, all without the costs associated with owning or operating a large solar facility.”

Spider Solar is UR’s second power purchase agreement. In 2016, the University constructed the first solar array in the Commonwealth under Virginia’s PPA pilot program, installing 749 solar panels on the roof of the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness. The panels cover roughly 22,000 square feet of the rooftop, and classes are able to conduct research by using them as a living lab. The Office for Sustainability offers educational tours of the solar array, providing information on UR’s carbon neutrality goals.

The fourth annual Richmond Virginia Black Lives Matter Art Show is on view virtually for the next year, featuring pieces from an accomplished artist who is also a staff member at UR.

When Director of User Services Scott Tilghman isn’t working in Information Services, where he’s been on staff since 1998, he focuses on his mosaic-style paintings. Two of his recent pieces were chosen for the show, which features more than 80 artists and 130 works.

Tilghman traditionally paints florals or landscape abstracts, but said he’s been encouraged recently to paint statement pieces, inspired in part by the weekly Intersections meetings that Keith “Mac” McIntosh, vice president for information services and CIO, started in 2017. Conversations that began in the IS division grew to include the entire University.

“When this show came up, I could hear Mac’s voice say, ‘Get into the conversation and be a part of it,’” Tilghman said. “Everyone has a voice and everyone should be heard. Without those meetings every Wednesday … those discussions on race …. I might not have thought what I had to add to the discussion would be relevant. But I support the movement.”

Tilghman’s piece titled “La monde regarde” (The world is watching) is about the 2020 election and the importance of the Black vote, featuring the Statue of Liberty as a Black woman. It is included in the “Inspiration & Aspiration” category of the exhibition. His other piece is titled “Dites leurs noms” (Say their names) and was inspired by his trip to the Robert E. Lee monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

Tilghman’s mosaic-style paintings show colors separated by the plain white canvas.

“During this time of division and search for inclusion, it highlights how we are not all together but how close we are,” he said.

Related:

For the third consecutive year, the University of Richmond is included on the list of U.S. colleges and universities that produced the most Fulbright U.S. Students and Scholars for 2020-21. UR is among only 17 institutions in the country to be honored in both categories.

“Fulbright is the United States’ preeminent cultural and academic exchange program, allowing our faculty and students to become ambassadors between the University of Richmond and the world,” said Dana Kuchem, director of the Office of Scholars and Fellowships.

Three faculty, the most for a baccalaureate institution, and four students received Fulbright awards in 2020-21.

UR’s Fulbright faculty recipients for 2020-21 include George Hiller, lecturer of international business and adjunct professor of liberal arts; Paul Kvam, professor of statistics; and Mariela Méndez, associate professor of Latin American, Latino, and Iberian studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Four University of Richmond students were awarded Fulbright grants to live, work, and study in Austria, Malaysia, and Mexico in 2021.

The Fulbright programs are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to support academic exchanges between the U.S and over 150 countries around the world. Almost 600 U.S. institutions participate.

In response to recent program adaptations to prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of participants and host communities, the 2020-21 Fulbright data reflects the total number of awards offered, rather than number of awards accepted, as in past years. 

The Fulbright Scholar Program is supported through Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations. The Fulbright student competition is administered through the Office of Scholars and Fellowships.

Future Spiders of the Class of 2025:

Like many of you, I started my senior year in the middle of a pandemic. Not so fun, right?

Now, imagine that it’s also your final semester of college. For me, this was the reality just a few short months ago. My excitement about returning to campus quickly turned into nervous anticipation as the school year crept closer. I was beyond thrilled to finally see my friends again, but my excitement was overshadowed by my fears about COVID-19. Were students going to follow the new rules? Would they take the pandemic seriously and avoid risking the health and safety of both themselves and those around them? So many questions and so much uncertainty.

However, our Spider community is resilient and innovative! Although classroom access was restricted to instruction only, UR set up outdoor tents to create additional study and dining spaces. They even added heaters for when the temperatures dropped (luckily, Richmond’s weather is temperate even in late October). Dining Services implemented online ordering to avoid congregations of students waiting in line; instead, you could order food from an app on your phone and wait until it was ready to pick up. The staff even set up an auxiliary dining hall in the Tyler Haynes Commons, the gorgeous student center that sits across the lake.

In shared spaces especially, cleaning was enhanced. Classrooms were wiped down before and after use, and our professors worked tirelessly to maintain the same intensity in our classes as before. For my in-person classes, my professors were extremely accommodating and understanding about allowing students to join via Zoom if they were feeling unwell that day. The priority, they emphasized, was our health and safety. That sentiment is strongly shared by everyone from students to faculty to staff. My friend Noelle’s professor, Dr. Matthew Oware, even gave her class two “mental health days” toward the latter half of the semester when work tends to pile up. 

Social life looked different, too. Most students stayed on campus, but I chose to continue living off-campus about ten minutes away. For me, living off-campus was nothing new. However, with the new policies and procedures in place to limit contact and the spread of COVID, my social life changed drastically. I could no longer swing by my friends’ rooms to just to hang out or do homework, nor could they visit me. Exploring more of Richmond (especially all of the amazing restaurants and eateries), visiting museums, and even studying at coffee shops wasn’t permitted.

Though it was initially difficult, and at times frustrating to navigate these changes, my friends and I eventually fell into a new “normal” both on- and off-campus. At home, I would spend as much time as possible outdoors on my balcony (I even invested in an egg chair!). Facetime and Zoom became my go-to ways to hang out with friends. We’d watch movies and comedy specials, cook, and even do homework together. My club volleyball team practiced outdoors, so I got to reconnect with old teammates and meet a bunch of new (and masked) ones. My friends and I even broke out our crafting skills to celebrate my friend Jeremy’s 21st birthday! With the help of a lot of duct tape, someone’s white bed sheet, a carefully placed bar stool, and a projector, we had a socially distant outdoor movie night. 

It was in moments like these that I remembered how lucky I was to be at Richmond with my friends. While most of our original plans had been upended because of the pandemic, by sticking together and finding new and safe ways to hang out, we had a truly amazing and memorable semester. It may not have looked like a classic college experience, but in some ways, it was even better.