Back to school

It’s the beginning of September—families are pulling together the binders, backpacks and pencils their children will need to go back to school. At the same time, students with disabilities and their parents will be celebrating two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that will be incredibly helpful in advancing the rights of the disabled in the classroom.

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Ehlena Fry and her service doggie Wonder

The first case was decided by the Court last summer. Ehlena Fry was five years old and just starting kindergarten when she got her service dog Wonder.  Ehlena has cerebral palsy and her doctors suggested the service dog as a way to help her become more independent. Wonder is able to help open and close doors, pick up things and stabilize Ehlena so she could independently make transfers from chair to walker.

However, Ehlena’s school district refused the family’s request to use the dog in the school. When the parents sued, the district maintained it was an administrative issue—and not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the decision for a unanimous court in the case of Fry v. Napoleon (MI) Community Schools, ruled that parents of a child denied the use of her service dog may sue that school district under provisions of the A.D.A. This is a great victory for the rights of people with disabilities to have service doggies help them live independent lives!

The Second case involves the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  passed in 1975 and guarantees students with disabilities the right of a “free appropriate public education.”  Of course, it is often a struggle to make sure the lofty words and ambitions of legislation are actually being put into practice throughout a system as decentralized and complex as American public schools.

The case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District will go a long way to clarify just what an “appropriate” education means for students with disabilities.
Endrew F. is a student with autism and attention deficit disorder.  His parents, concerned that his annual individualized education plan didn’t seem to change from year to year, pulled him from public school and enrolled him in a private school.

The Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed with the parents that merely being enrolled in the public school and being given the minimum is not sufficient and IDEA demands more from school districts.  In his decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”



“Would you like a Coke with that accessibility?”

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Cases before the Supreme Court often result in widespread changes to our society. Issues such as school segregation, abortion and the right to bear arms have all been the subject of famous landmark decisions. But whether the case is well known or obscure, all Supreme Court decisions have one thing in common — they started because an actual person had a specific problem they wanted solved by the courts.

Such is the case of Magee v. Coca Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., currently pending before the Supreme Court. The case was brought because a thirsty blind man couldn’t independently use a vending machine to buy a Coke on a hot Louisiana day. The case will help determine how far the courts and the U.S. Department of Justice feel corporations must go to make retail vending equipment accessible to people with disabilities.

Emmett Magee is blind and lives in Metairie, Louisiana. On several occasions Mr. Magee found himself unable to use one of the glass front vending machines selling Coca Colas located in places such as his hospital and local bus station. The Coke machines do not offer any non-visual ways to either operate the machine or to ascertain the price. So, Mr. Magee sued Coca Cola, arguing that vending machines should be seen as public accommodations and hence, under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, must be accessible to people with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a recent friend of the court brief, stated its opinion that vending machines are not public accommodations, they are merely equipment located inside facilities that are the public accommodations. The D.O.J. further argued that it is not Coca Cola’s responsibility to make the vending machines accessible. The establishments where the machines are located are responsible for ensuring accessibility of products to customers and can meet this responsibility by having people available to assist customers with disabilities attempting to use the machines. The lower courts that have already heard this case both came to the same opinion.

This could be a troubling development for people with disabilities and the long term trend for technology to be made accessible. From curb cuts to smartphones to closed captioning, technology has become more inclusive for a wider range of people with disabilities. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, American businesses that might have balked at increased costs were required to develop and use technology that advanced the independent and accessible use of a wide range of equipment.

This case is also a look into how the D.O.J. under the Trump administration may differ in their interpretation of the A.D.A. and the requirements it places on the public accommodations covered under Title III of the law.

For example, in a very similar case to Magee decided in 2014, the U.S. Justice Department came to the exact opposite conclusion in a brief for a case involving the machines used to swipe credit and debit cards to make a purchase. In order to make a debit purchase, blind customers had to input a PIN number — and without tactile keyboards blind customers were unable to independently use the machines. As a result of this case, machines for swiping cards now come with tactile keyboards to allow for their independent use by customers with disabilities.

The U.S. Justice Department under the Trump administration seems committed to giving more leeway to businesses, including on acceptable accommodations for customers with disabilities facing inaccessible technologies used in everyday commerce. This could delay the progress in accessibility that people with disabilities have experienced since the passage of the A.D.A.

25 Reasons To Celebrate The 25th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act


25. Lifts on all Centro buses make it possible for passengers with disabilities to take public transit. (scroll to pages 6 and 7)

24. Closed caption glasses at Regal Cinemas allow deaf movie goers to enjoy watching movies in theaters.

23. Newly constructed buildings open to the public must be made accessible and the existing public spaces are required to be retrofitted for access where possible.

Continue reading “25 Reasons To Celebrate The 25th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act”

Owning My Disability

“I am a person with a disability.” I believe that this is the first time I have ever written this sentence. I just finished a post explaining the Americans with Disabilities Act–and realized that it was littered with personal possessives: “we” “our people” “us” “our.” I have been organizing for disability rights for a little less than a year and I was worried some might feel I was inappropriately identifying myself with others in the disability rights movement. I am not trying to appropriate another’s culture. I not only organize for disability rights, I am disabled and benefit from increased rights for people with disabilities. Continue reading “Owning My Disability”