A case of alleged discrimination by a Manhattan preschool against a boy diagnosed with autism reminds us that individuals with special needs are often treated unfairly and legal action is sometimes necessary to protect their rights.
The parents of a two-year-old boy say that a private school in Tribeca offered him a spot in its preschool program, but rescinded the offer after learning that the boy had been diagnosed with autism. The parents have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan, alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “While a private school does not have to provide specialized services for a child with a disability, it may not discriminate based solely on disability,” says Marion Walsh, an attorney with Littman Krooks LLP, who assists children with special needs and their parents. “Children with high-functioning autism often can succeed very well in a mainstream environment,” she says. “From a parental perspective, enduring exclusion from school based solely on a child’s disability can be devastating.”
The allegations represent a troubling reminder that adults and children with special needs still face discrimination every day. Although strong legal protections are codified in the law, action by parents and attorneys is often necessary to enforce legal rights. Parents and attorneys must continue to be vigilant enforcers.
Three federal statutes protect individuals with special needs from discrimination:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment and in public entities and places of “public accommodation,” which includes most privately-run schools and child-care centers. The ADA does not specific to schools, but in the education context, it requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations, necessary auxiliary services and reasonable modifications of policies and practices to prevent discrimination against students with disabilities.
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that every public school district in the United States identify children with disabilities and provide children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). All 50 states accept federal funding under the statute and are therefore required to provide appropriate special education and related services. The IDEA requires the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability and that provides individually tailored services and is reasonably calculated to provide educational benefits.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal funding or financial assistance. Section 504 provides that students with disabilities must receive an education that is comparable to that provided to students without disabilities. Even if students do not receive special education services under the IDEA, they may receive related services under Section 504.
Parents, advocates and attorneys have worked tirelessly and persistently to ensure that individuals with disabilities are included in school and workplaces. People with disabilities worked hard to achieve these legal protections. Parents of children with special needs, with support from attorneys and other advocates, must continue to work to enforce those rights. To learn more about the special education process, click here.