This year marks the 30th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Throughout 2020, the Civil Rights Division is publishing a series of blog posts highlighting the impact that ADA enforcement efforts have had on people’s lives. We celebrate the many ways the ADA has transformed American society and enabled a generation of Americans with disabilities to thrive. At the same time, we recognize that many barriers to equal opportunity still exist. We recommit to our work of making the promise of the ADA a reality, enabling all Americans with disabilities to achieve their dreams and reach their full potential.
Furthering the Promise: Increasing Opportunities for Education
Education has the potential to serve as a great equalizer in our society, and this is no less true for individuals with disabilities. When enacting the ADA in 1990, Congress expressly identified education as one area where discrimination against individuals with disabilities remained persistent. Since then, the Justice Department has played a significant role in ensuring that individuals with disabilities have equal educational opportunities.
In a recent case, the department reached an agreement with the Gates Chili Central School District in Rochester, New York, to resolve a lawsuit brought by the United States following investigation of a complaint filed by Heather Burroughs, the mother of D.P., a child with disabilities. The complaint alleged that the school district refused to permit D.P. to use her service animal at school unless her mother provided a separate, full-time dog handler. The school district required a separate handler despite D.P.’s demonstrated ability to control and handle her dog with minimal assistance and the dog’s extensive training to serve and respond directly to the student. Ultimately, Burroughs felt forced to move her family to a different school district where her daughter was appropriately recognized as her service dog’s handler.
As Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in announcing the resolution, “[f]or years, the school district in this case violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by limiting this child’s use of her service dog based on unfounded assumptions and generalizations about her disabilities. Families should not have to uproot their lives, disrupt their child’s education, move away from friends, and pay tens of thousands of dollars because a school district fails or refuses to respect the civil rights of children.”
Under the agreement, the school district paid Burroughs $42,000 for out-of-pocket expenses and damages for emotional distress. The school district also revised its service animal policy consistent with the ADA, trained staff on the revised policy, and agreed to provide reasonable modifications that would allow future students with disabilities to use service dogs at school.
“The part that was really hard was that I was a single parent at the time, and I had to move into my parents’ basement and basically give my salary to somebody else so my child could go to school,” Burroughs said. “But when the Department of Justice knocks on your door and says they are going to support you, it’s amazing.”
In another recent matter, the department entered into a settlement agreement with the Iowa City Community School District, which operates 21 elementary schools. The agreement resolves a complaint, filed on behalf of multiple families, alleging that the School District’s playgrounds are inaccessible to children who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Under the agreement, the School District will make its playgrounds accessible by Jan. 1, 2023. This includes ensuring that playgrounds comply with Title II of the ADA and the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, as well as fixing barriers to play components, play area amenities (such as benches and picnic tables), routes to play areas, and routes connecting play components.
Melissa Krishnan spent years advocating for her son, Isaiah, who is now in 7th grade, to be able to equally access school playgrounds alongside his classmates. Starting when Isaiah was in kindergarten, Krishnan contacted the School District about barriers that made elementary school playgrounds inaccessible and left her son sitting on the sidelines watching other children play. But even as the School District built new playgrounds, the playgrounds remained inaccessible. When talking about the importance of inclusive and accessible playgrounds, Krishnan explained that “playgrounds are the one facility and location that will be used to max capacity in various forms by various people all year round for years to come.”
The department also recently entered into a settlement agreement with Ridgewood Preparatory School, a private, nonsectarian school in Metairie, Louisiana to resolve a complaint filed by the parents of a child with spina bifida. The parents alleged, and the department’s investigation substantiated, that Ridgewood denied their child admission to its pre-kindergarten class and then again to its kindergarten class because of his disability. The child’s sister already attended Ridgewood, and the parents wanted them to be in school together. But for two years, their son was forced to attend school elsewhere because Ridgewood refused to reasonably modify its policies, practices, or procedures so that he could attend school there.
Under the agreement, Ridgewood will offer the child two years of tuition-free enrollment and provide him with the reasonable modifications necessary for him to participate in its educational programs, including supervision as he walks up and down the stairs, and as he self-catheterizes once per school day. Ridgewood also agreed to make modifications to its campus so that it is accessible to individuals with disabilities, including making its playground, classrooms, bathrooms, and other facilities accessible. This will ensure that the child and other children with disabilities are able to independently and safely navigate the school. This agreement, and others like it, reflect the department’s continued commitment to ensuring that no child with a disability is prevented from enrolling in the school of his or her choice because of discriminatory attitudes about children with disabilities and what they can achieve.
To learn more about the ADA’s history and impact, please visit the department’s ADA Anniversary webpage, which includes this and other blog posts honoring Faces of the ADA. To learn more about the department’s ADA work generally, see www.ada.gov or call the department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383).