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School faces ADA discrimination action by student


By Sean McLean

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is designed to provide clear, consistent and enforceable standards to remedy discrimination in places of public accommodation.  In this case, the place of public accommodation was an undergraduate and postgraduate university.  These institutions are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in the full and equal enjoyment of the privileges, advantages, or accommodations they offer.

Discrimination under the ADA
Discrimination is defined by the ADA as a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures that are necessary to accommodate individuals with disabilities.  The ADA specifically intended to remedy the discriminatory effects of communication barriers for individuals with hearing disabilities.  Federal regulations require appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary.  Places of public accommodation are instructed to consult with individuals with disabilities whenever possible to determine what type of auxiliary aid is needed to ensure effective communication.

Although the ADA does not require institutions to provide all requested auxiliary aids and services, the standard requires an otherwise qualified disabled individual be provided with meaningful access to take advantage of the benefits the institution offers.  

Student’s ADA action
In this case, a medical school student reported a disability of “significant hearing loss” to his university.  The student’s accommodation history included the use of lip reading, as well as cued speech, as his primary means of communication.  The student also requested CART Services for lectures – a computer system which transcribes spoken words into written text, interpreters for labs, and an FM system or interpreters for small group sessions as his accommodations.  In response to these requested accommodations, the medical school asked the student to submit an updated diagnostic assessment related to the specific accommodations he requested.  The medical school also noted that it had some concerns about whether the requested accommodations were reasonable and/or would permit the student to meet the technical standards required of his medical program.

After submitted all requested information, the school determined its medical program “requires medical degree candidates to be capable of performing in a reasonably independent manner” and advised the medical student he would only be accommodated by: being permitted to sit in the first row, receiving an FM system, copies of all PowerPoint presentations and access to a note-taker’s notes and enhanced note-taking services.

The student notified the university the accommodations were inadequate and did not provide him with meaningful participation in his courses.  The student was forced to take out personal loans in excess of $100,000 to finance the accommodations he was denied by the university.  The medical student then sued for ADA discrimination.  At the trial level, the court dismissed the case in favor of the university.  The medical student then appealed.

Equal Opportunities as Non-Disabled Peers
On appeal, the federal appellate court found that public entities are required to provide reasonable auxiliary aids and services to allow “meaningful access” and must allow disabled persons equal opportunity to gain the same benefit as those without disabilities.  This requirement is designed to ensure that all people have full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations regardless of disability.  

An expert otolaryngologist supported the student’s claim that the university’s accommodations were inadequate through his testimony that the university only provided the student with 38% speech perception.  Based upon this evidence, the appellate court concluded the student’s requested accommodations were necessary and should have been provided by the university under the ADA.  Accordingly, the federal appellate court reversed the district court’s ruling, sent the case back to the trial court, and refused to dismiss the case in the university’s favor.

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