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As ADA reaches 25, its impact felt in many ways

In 2011, Susan Burke wanted her 7-year-old daughter Emma to participate in Camp Bravo, a local summer camp in Towson that provides both educational and recreational opportunities for children.

But the camp did not want Emma.

Emma has epilepsy, and her potential need for Diastat, an at-home rectal gel emergency medication used to resolve repetitive seizures, kept her from attending Camp Bravo in 2011 and 2012 because the camp did not and would not provide its staff members with training that would enable them to medicate Emma if she started having an episode.

“They kept telling me that the kids had to be able to self-administer their medication, and I thought, ‘If a kid had anaphylactic shock, from a bee sting, etc., they’re not going to be able to administer that medication themselves?’” Burke said. “Why is Diastat any different?”

Her family filed a complaint soon after, alleging that the camp discriminated against Emma and violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act by violating her civil rights by refusing to admit her to the camp because of her medical condition.

On June 24 — two and a half years after the complaint was filed and on Emma’s 12th birthday —the U.S. Justice Department reached a settlement with the camp that would require it to train its staff to administer Diastat medication by its first summer session in 2016.

“I was thrilled that the case wound up settling how it did, because it’s setting a precedent in the state of Maryland that summer camps can’t exclude children based on medical conditions,” Burke said.  “It was just all the stars aligning.”

A spokesperson for the camp was unavailable to comment on the settlement.

The ADA at 25

The Burke’s case reflects the profound impact of the 25-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities, say advocates of the law.

“That a child would be excluded from participating in a temp or any regular activity that their non-disabled peers can participate in — we really cannot separate and segregate children while they’re growing up and then expect that when they grow up and are in the workforce, they’re going to be competent in society,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, executive director of Maryland Disability Law Center. “It’s a right for everyone to be an included member of our society, and no justification for it to be otherwise.”

The case was another example of how including children with disabilities at a young age could go a long way toward building a more inclusive society, Marcus said.

“It’s not all that unusual — we’ve had more than one of these kinds of cases,” Marcus said. “Again, it’s a matter of including kids together and normalizing that some people have a disability, and that’s OK. It’s just one part of a person, it’s not all there is to that person.”

Under the ADA, children and adults with disabilities have more access to public accommodations like camps, malls, and doctors’ offices, which must comply with nondiscrimination requirements.

“All these things that people do on a daily basis that we take for granted are subject to ADA, so it just makes all those barriers that people with disabilities have faced in their life — all those programs are required, with some limited exceptions, to provide accommodations,” said Leslie Seid Margolis, an attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center who initially represented Emma in the case.

New challenges

The ADA has drawn criticism as much for what it might potentially do as for its current impact. Some business groups have said that complying with ADA requirements are a burden to small businesses, and they express concern that the definition of what is a disability continues to expand.

Marcus said that thinking may be shortsighted.

“I’m not sure why 25 years later not everyone in the business community is embracing of the ADA — by removing barriers to people with disabilities, they’re opening themselves up to a larger market,” she said. “It was a huge accomplishment when this really comprehensive civil rights law was enacted 25 years ago. And certainly it’s created many new legal rights for people with disabilities, but a law can’t change attitudes. It can be a conduit, however.”

And while she wouldn’t necessarily want to send Emma to Camp Bravo now, Burke said the settlement case shows the Americans with Disabilities Act’s continued ability to provide people with disabilities — especially children — with equal rights.

“To me it was less about getting Emma accepted into that camp and more about making sure that these kids’ rights are not violated,” Burke said. “They should be able to have access to the same summer camps that everyone else does — they just want to have fun.”