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Supreme Court Sides with Deaf Student in ADA Discrimination Case

Apr 19, 2023

In a unanimous decision on March 21st, the Supreme Court ruled that a student can pursue a lawsuit against his school district under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, has important implications for students with disabilities — and for school districts that ignore accessibility. 

Perez vs. Sturgis Public Schools: A Win for Disability Rights

Plaintiff Miguel Luna Perez is a student who attended Sturgis Public Schools in Michigan. Perez is Deaf and uses sign language to communicate. He alleged that the school district failed to provide him with adequate educational services, including qualified interpreters.

Additionally, the school district allegedly misrepresented Perez’s educational progress. The plaintiff’s parents say that they believed he was on track to graduate from high school with his class — only to learn that he would not receive a diploma several months before graduation.

Perez filed a lawsuit under the ADA, claiming that the school district discriminated against him because of his disability. The school district argued that Perez had to first exhaust all of the administrative procedures required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before he could sue under the ADA.

Students may pursue ADA claims after resolving issues through IDEA

Essentially, the school district’s argument was that the remedies supplied through the IDEA administrative process constituted relief under the ADA. This is not a legal blog, so we won’t get into detail about the differences between those terms — but the Supreme Court rejected this argument. 

The Court found that the ADA's purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to public services, and that this purpose is not served by requiring students to first go through the IDEA's administrative process.

“"The court's ruling vindicates the rights of students with disabilities to obtain full relief when they suffer discrimination,” Perez’s attorney, Roman Martinez, told Reuters. “Miguel and his family look forward to pursuing their legal claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Related: School Districts and Web Accessibility: Where to Start

What the Ruling Means for Digital Accessibility

Perez’s allegations did not include specific mentions of digital accessibility barriers. However, the Justice Department has opined that the ADA applies to websites, mobile apps, and other types of digital content.

The Supreme Court’s ruling indicates that school districts cannot use the dispute-resolution procedures under IDEA to avoid paying compensatory damages in discrimination lawsuits. 

That would likely apply to digital ADA claims as well. Notably, IDEA explicitly states that “nothing in [IDEA] shall be construed to restrict" the ability of individuals to seek remedies under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  

In other words, digital accessibility lawsuits may still proceed, regardless of whether the school district resolves accessibility barriers as part of IDEA’s administrative procedures. 

Related: DOJ Announces Title II Web Accessibility Regulations Are Coming: What’s It Mean?

Public and private schools must prioritize accessibility - or face the consequences

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many school districts were faced with a harsh reality: Their websites and online learning tools were inadequately prepared to support millions of students, particularly those with disabilities.

Under IDEA, schools have an obligation to provide a free, appropriate public education to all students with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21. Additionally, Title II of the ADA prohibits public institutions from discriminating against individuals with disabilities — and digital barriers can be just as impactful as physical barriers. 

Schools can limit their legal risks and provide better accommodations for all students by treating accessibility as a priority. Some general tips:

  • Consider accessibility when designing your website, implementing e-learning resources, and establishing curricula. Use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility, to evaluate your online resources.
  • Before purchasing from third-party vendors, ask about accessibility. Make sure that e-learning tools have robust support for screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT). 
  • Have a process for recording and captioning all video sessions (including lectures). Review captions for accuracy and create transcripts — don’t rely on automatically generated captions.
  • Use accessible file formats. PDF, Microsoft Word, and other common documents can be optimized for accessibility.
  • Provide students with options. A flexible approach helps to accommodate different types of abilities and learning preferences — and ensures the best possible results for students.

If you need assistance building a digital accessibility strategy, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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