Athletic Eligibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Law Review)

Article excerpt

The enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; Public Law 101-336) in 1990 led to efforts to ensure universal participation in facilities and programs for individuals with disabilities. Title II of the ADA provides "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity" (United States Department of Justice, 2001; see table 1 for definitions of legal terms such as "qualified individual"). Individuals who have impairment in walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning or working are protected under the language of the ADA (Appenzeller, 1998; Dougherty, 1994).

Several cases involving student-athlete eligibility and discrimination claims under the ADA have provided insight into the legal precedents regarding the governing bodies' roles in making reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities. The following case-reviews provide examples of such situations.

Dennis L. Johnson v.

Florida High School Activities Association, Inc. and the Pinellas County School Board

No. 95-3341

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

102 F.3d 1172

January 6, 1997

Dennis L. Johnson (plaintiff) was a senior at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, Florida. He had contracted meningitis when nine months old and consequently became partially deaf in one ear and lost all hearing in the other. Because of his hearing loss, Johnson fell behind in basic language skills and was twice held back a year during his early schooling. As a result, Johnson was at least a year older than most students in his class.

After completely losing his hearing, Johnson was placed in special education until 11th grade, when he returned to mainstream classes and began to participate in football and wrestling at his high school. In his senior year it was determined that Johnson was too old to play interscholastic sports according to the rules of the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA), the co-defendant. Even though Johnson was held back due to a disability, the FHSAA still declared him ineligible. The plaintiff filed for a preliminary injunction.

The Complaint

The issues in the case were (1) the plaintiff was excluded from school sports because of a disability, which violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1974; (2) the defendant did not provide reasonable accommodations to allow participation of a disabled person as mandated in the ADA of 1990; (3) the defendant is a "public entity" and the denial of persons with disabilities from participation is a breech of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; (4) the reason the plaintiff was still in school and 19 years of age was because of his disability; (5) waiving the age requirement would not fundamentally alter the nature of the sports and would not compromise the goals of safety and fairness, which were the initial purposes of the age requirement; (6) there would be irreparable injury to the plaintiff if he were not permitted to play; and (7) there would be an adverse effect on public interest should the injunction not occur.

Findings in the Case

The court found that to establish a case for a preliminary injunction the plaintiff must show (1) substantial likelihood of prevailing on merits; (2) irreparable injury if the injunction should not occur; (3) threatened injury to plaintiff that is greater than any damage the preliminary injunction would cause the defendant; and (4) absence of any adverse affect on public interest if the injunction were issued.

The court also found that to establish a claim of exclusion because of a disability (as dictated by the Rehabilitation Act) the plaintiff must establish that (1) he has a disability defined by the Rehabilitation Act; (2) he is otherwise qualified to participate in the activities as mandated by the FHSAA or he will be otherwise qualified through reasonable accommodations; (3) he is being excluded from participation solely because of his disability; and (4) the FHSAA received federal financial assistance. …