Each time Amy Rowley's attorney was questioned by a justice during oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, a colleague tugged on his coat to get his attention. Michael A. Chatoff then would look at a nearby video screen.
The pauses were necessary because Chatoff, like his 10-year-old client, is deaf. A court reporter transcribed the justices' voices and sent them electronically to a computer in an alcove.
The computer transmitted the words to the screen where Chatoff, who can speak even though he can't hear, could read the questions and respond.
The court gave Chatoff special permission for the dramatic experiment, which was witnessed by other deaf people in the audience using sign interpreters.
The legal question is just as dramatic to school officials and disabled groups around the country because it is the first Supreme Court review of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which requires that the disabled be provided with a "free appropriate public education." The justices are being asked to decide how much special attention the Hendrick Hudson School District near New York City has to give to Amy Rowley's handicap.
Chatoff and Elliott Schulder, of the Justice Department, contended that the 1975 act requires the school to provide a sign interpreter in her classes so she has an equal chance to learn with her nonhandicapped classmates. Lower courts agreed.
The school district's lawyer, Raymond G. Kuntz, countered that the school district followed the law in making special provisions for the child, including providing her a wireless hearing aid, a speech therapist, a tutor and a hand-picked teacher. Amy Rowley, now a fourth grader, is a bright girl who is doing quite well in class, Kuntz said.
Courts shouldn't be dictating to local school authorities, he added.
The federal government now spends about $1 billion a year to serve more than 4 million handicapped children under the law, but states and local school boards provide nearly 90 percent of the necessary money. States who take the federal funds agree to make personalized plans for each child served.
The Reagan administration, citing cost and overregulation, is planning to introduce amendments that handicapped advocacy groups fear would undermine safeguards in the act.
Most of the justices' questions seemed to indicate a reluctance to review the decisions of local school boards. Justice John Paul Stevens, for example, said at one point, "My problem with the case is as soon as you acknowledge some substantive review, what's the stopping point?"
He asked Chatoff if his interpretation of the law wouldn't require sign language interpreters for every deaf child in the country. Chatoff said his client was a special case, noting that most deaf children don't attend regular public schools.