As parents deal with the effects of various lockdowns on our children, we need to consider whether we can harness the power of the Americans with Disabilities Act to help them as they return to school, camps, and youth organizations. If we have children whose anxiety, depression, or other mental health difficulties reach levels that, in the words of federal nondiscrimination law, “limit one or more major life activities,” then we have resources under that law.
The first step is to know what the law requires. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the best known of the federal statutes. An earlier statute, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation of Act of 1973 (Sec. 504), has overlapping requirements, and both create a web of requirements for schools, childcare centers, camps, and similar organizations. The ADA is the broadest statute, governing all places of public accommodation. The main exception is for activities controlled by religious entities. Church schools, for example, generally are exempt. Programs that merely use religious facilities, such as a childcare center that leases space from a synagogue, are subject to the ADA.
The ADA and Sec. 504 prohibit discrimination against a child with a physical or mental impairment that “limits one or more major life activities,” including mental health difficulties. In general, a facility must make “reasonable modifications” to their programs to accommodate a child’s disability. There are three important exceptions, namely that a program (1) can exclude children who pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, (2) need not make accommodations that would fundamentally alter the program, and (3) need not take steps that place an undue burden on the program.
Whether reasonable accommodations are possible or whether a program can claim one of the exceptions requires a close look at the facts of a specific situation. For example, if your child’s behavior requires a one-on-one caregiver, then the program need not bear that cost. If you are willing to pay for that caregiver, however, then that program must make accommodations.
An exception comes into play more often with psychological disabilities than physical is that a program need not accommodate a child who poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, in a childcare center, a child with an uncontrollable temper may directly threaten the safety of other children in the classroom. Camps may find it dangerous to allow a child with impulse control on the archery range. The physical world is not forgiving, and our good intentions often are not enough to protect children. If a child’s mental health disabilities prevent him or her from following safety protocols, then safety concerns may require that the program limit that child to low-risk activities.
We as parents also cannot demand accommodations that pose an undue burden to the program. It is common, for example, to think that children who have anxiety attacks need to move to a quiet area to collect themselves and calm down. Any youth-serving program, however, still needs to supervise that child and monitor his or her well-being. If the organization do not have enough staff to provide one-on-one supervision while the child calms down, it can require that the child report to the camp nurse or someone else who can keep an eye on them. The child may prefer to be alone, but the program does not have to accommodate that preference.
Specific mental health problems and specific accommodations require detailed analysis that are beyond the scope of this blog. Simply know that many psychological disabilities are covered by the ADA, and youth organizations can accommodate most of them. Advocate for your child, consult mental health professionals, and work with schools and other organizations to determine what your child needs and what a given program can provide within the bounds of safety, physics, and economics.