Sign language interpreters bring music to life for deaf community in western Wisconsin

WEST SALEM, Wis. (WKBT) – People’s ears allow them to understand and communicate, but for some, their sight provides what their hearing cannot.

One country music festival provided people with the skill to share music with the deaf community.  These services not only help people enjoy life but they’re also required by law.  


Seeing is Listening

“Our hearing is our eyes,” said Theresa Lewis, who has lived in La Crosse her whole life.

“If you’ve gone underwater before, that’s how we feel,” said Mike Lewis, Theresa’s husband.

Mike and Theresa Lewis listen with their eyes. In fifth grade, Mike suffered pneumonia that produced a fever so high, it cost him most of his hearing.

“But that did not stop me,” Mike Lewis said.

Mike and Theresa’s passion might surprise you.

“Music relaxes people, and for me, I grew up with music,” he said.

Obviously, they absorb melodies and lyrics differently than most, but the deaf ear can’t stop the rhythm of any tune from touching their souls.

“We even crank out music in the car as we’re driving, to a point where hearing people couldn’t stand it,” Mike Lewis said.

The loss of one sense, Theresa said, strengthens another.

“I can feel the beat. If it’s really loud, the louder the better,” Theresa Lewis said. “That vibration, the movement of it. It’s wonderful for me.”

Mike and Theresa wanted to enjoy their love of Country Music at Country Boom in West Salem.

“I sent them an email and they denied me,” Theresa Lewis said.

The couple asked Country Boom leaders to provide an interpreter at the music festival — something Colleen Cudo does for people every day.

“It’s equal access,” Cudo said. “That’s what’s required.”

Cudo helps the deaf community understand medical information at Mayo Clinic Health System. She also interprets music for the deaf community and has done so at music festivals across the region.

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with physical and mental barriers at public places and events. Title III requires public places and events to provide auxiliary aids for people who can’t hear.

§ 36.303 Auxiliary aids and services.
(a) General. A public accommodation shall take
those steps that may be necessary to ensure that
no individual with a disability is excluded, denied
services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence
of auxiliary aids and services, unless the public
accommodation can demonstrate that taking those
steps would fundamentally alter the nature of the
goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages,
or accommodations being offered or would result
in an undue burden, i.e., significant difficulty or
expense.
(b) Examples. The term “auxiliary aids and services” includes –
(1) Qualified interpreters on-site or through
video remote interpreting (VRI) services; notetakers; real-time computer-aided transcription
services; written materials

Steven Wheeler, the Civil Rights supervising attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said people must first ask for these services.

“If somebody asks for it and they say no, that’s different,” Wheeler said. “That’s a refusal to accommodate.”

Exceptions exist to the rule if the change creates a risk to health or safety – the accommodation would fundamentally alter the nature of the service – or if there is an unreasonable cost.

“Really if it’s not feasible,” Wheeler said. “Not just if it’s gonna bring the profit margins down.”

Emails show Theresa and Mike asked Country Boom for this service multiple times dating back to 2019. Country Boom staff denied their request each time.

“It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where a business couldn’t afford the small amount of money for the interpreter. I think that would be a clear violation,” Wheeler said.

“We have ramps, right — for people in wheelchairs to get down there and enjoy,” Cudo said. “So, why are we not providing the interpreter for those that can’t hear it?”

After News 8 Now contacted senior leadership at Country Boom, cofounder Jon Holthaus said they would make the accommodation this year.

“We like music and we want to enjoy it along with everybody else,” Theresa Lewis said.

Cudo pointed to the joy a move like this ignites.

“We love it,” Mike Lewis said.

“Whether it’s going to the grocery store or going to a concert, these are all parts of our lives, Wheeler said. “Living a full joyous life is something that should be available to everybody; not just people who can hear.”

The evidence of its impact was left behind in the form of a smile on Mike and Theresa’s face at Country Boom 2022.  Their world can seem so quiet, but it screams with possibilities when the community welcomes them to come as they are.