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Panel backs deaf patron's claim against club

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission is tentatively supporting a deaf West Toledo woman's claim that a local comedy club discriminated against her when it refused to provide an interpreter at one of its shows.

Rebecca M. Bisesi, 23, contends the club violated state law when it did not agree to supply an interpreter.

Under Ohio law, owners or operators of places open to the public may not discriminate against potential patrons who have disabling handicaps. All people must be allowed “the full enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges of the place of public accommodation.”

Frank Stevens, owner of Connxtions II Comedy Club on Heatherdowns Boulevard, is fighting the preliminary ruling. He said he offered to allow Ms. Bisesi and an interpreter to see the show free. “I think we try to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities,” Mr. Stevens said. “I offered her any seat, any table, for any show, at no cost.”

The commission has issued a ruling of probable cause, meaning that in the commission's opinion, it is probable that Mr. Stevens's club violated Ohio civil rights law by failing to provide the interpreter.

Mr. Stevens, who lives in Lansing, has hired a Columbus attorney to represent him. He has asked the civil rights commission to reconsider its position.

If the commission holds its ground and the two sides can't resolve their differences, the matter would become a formal complaint to the Ohio attorney general's office, said Mark Kautzmann, a commission spokesman. “This is just the start of the process,” David Kessler, Mr. Stevens's attorney, said of the probable-cause ruling. “This is enough to at least have a hearing to determine the facts.”

Ms. Bisesi, who at the time of the complaint lived on Secor Road in West Toledo but who now lives in the 1800 block of North McCord Road, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Francis J. Landry, a local attorney who has represented plaintiffs in many workplace discrimination disputes, said Ms. Bisesi's complaint is groundbreaking because it involves not a physical restriction on access to a public place, but rather an issue about one's ability to receive the full effect of a public performance. If upheld, Mr. Landry said, Ms. Bisesi's complaint “would be a great endorsement of the rights of people with disabilities.” But it also would likely uncork a surge of litigation to determine how much notice club and theater owners would need to accommodate patrons with nonmobility impairments, and how much burden they would legally have to bear to do so.

According to the ruling, Ms. Bisesi inquired April 3 about attending a show by the Amazing Jonathan, a comedy magician, at the club four days later. Connxtions II management offered to waive the $15 ticket fee for her and an interpreter of her choice. But Ms. Bisesi insisted that the club was obligated to provide the interpreter's services for her at a cost Mr. Stevens estimated at more than $100.

Ms. Bisesi's request was refused, and she complained to the civil rights commission April 20.

In its response, the club maintained that the cost for the interpreter would be a financial hardship, since it would far exceed the revenue the club would receive from Ms. Bisesi even if she were charged admission. In addition, the club contended that putting an interpreter on the stage would be an undue distraction for other show patrons.

An illusionist, in particular, “has to have the audience's attention focused where he needs it,” Mr. Stevens said yesterday.

The civil rights commission ruled, however, that Mr. Stevens had not adequately demonstrated financial hardship, nor had he proven that options other than placing the interpreter on the stage had been explored.

Mr. Stevens said on at least one occasion, a lip-reading deaf person has patronized his original Connxtions club in Lansing, but Ms. Bisesi was the first person ever to ask his staff to provide an interpreter.

The club owner said he will comply with any eventual legal ruling, but he called the public accommodation statute “very vague.” He questioned how movie theaters, as an example, would be able to comply with a requirement that the hearing-impaired be accommodated during shows.

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