Twenty-five years ago, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law designed to guarantee Americans with disabilities broad rights and freedoms. Tragically, however, stubborn stereotypes, combined with narrow court rulings, have robbed many Americans of the rights promised by the ADA.
Today, the ACLU of Michigan and the National ACLU asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case that would tear down court-imposed barriers that prevent people with disability from realizing freedoms promised by the ADA.
Our client is Ehlena Fry, a bright girl with cerebral palsy. Her school barred her from bringing her service dog with her to kindergarten even though the dog was critical to establishing her independence. Before she had a service dog, Ehlena depended on her parents and aides to do even simple tasks for her such as opening doors, turning on lights and maintaining balance.
However, when Ehlena was five years old, generous contributions from neighbors allowed the Frys to add a new member to their family to help their daughter do these and other tasks: a cute, doctor-prescribed, mobility assistance Goldendoodle named Wonder.
Much to Ehlena’s dismay, the school officials at the Napoleon School District refused to accommodate Ehlena and allow Wonder to accompany her to school. When the ACLU intervened, the school allowed Wonder in the school on a temporary basis, but the dog was relegated to the back of the classroom and could not even accompany Ehlena to recess. The Frys filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education and decided to homeschool their child while they waited for a ruling.
Two years later, OCR issued a strong ruling rebuking the school district for violating Ehlena’s rights under the ADA. To settle the matter, the school district reluctantly agreed to allow Wonder to come back to school. But when the Frys met with school officials to make arrangements, they realized that the administrators resented Ehlena and that, if she returned, she would face hostility.
The Frys placed Ehlena in a public school in a neighboring district, where both she and Wonder were welcomed with open arms. With the help of the ACLU, the family then filed a federal lawsuit against the Napoleon School District for violations of the ADA.
Unfortunately, the courts never reached the merits of the case. In a 2-1 decision the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Ehlena could not file an ADA case in federal court because she never sought an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a different law designed to ensure that students with special needs receive an appropriate education.
But Ehlena was not complaining about the quality her education. She was complaining that she was being denied the ability to become independent by bringing her service dog to school.
Moreover, students only need to ask for IDEA hearings for violation of their ADA rights if they are “seeking relief that is also available under” IDEA. In this case, the Frys are seeking money damages to compensate them for excluding Wonder and money damages are not available under IDEA. For this reason, other courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, have held that there is no need to seek an administrative hearing in cases like this one.
We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will hear Ehlena’s case to remove unauthorized barriers to vindicating disability rights and restore the promise of the freedom and equality promised by the ADA.