The ADA: A Matter Of Safety

Monday, May 19, 2014 View Comments

Julie Mills is an attorney who practices and resides in Columbus, Ohio.

As an attorney whose practice includes matters pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the majority of the issues typically brought to my attention involve the physical accessibility of a building. For instance, there was no wheelchair access to a restaurant. Or the aisles in a store were too narrow for a wheelchair. Or there were no curb cuts on a city street.

In the past year, however, there has been a significant increase in ADA issues where the case involved a family with a child with autism.

Children with autism can be “runners,” where they slip out of sight in a split second. Protecting a child on the autism spectrum from “running” is, for a parent, a vital safety concern and can be a matter of life and death. In my small nonprofit that provides gymnastics classes to children with special needs, we assign volunteers specifically to catch students who run from the group because the gymnastics floor is spotted with dangerous equipment, cheese pits (large holes filled with foam cubes), and in-ground trampolines.

The combination of a child on the autism spectrum and therefore “disabled” under the ADA, and “running” is putting several entities on notice of their obligations under the ADA. One matter that was recently resolved involved an elementary-aged student on the autism spectrum. She ran out of her classroom more than once and on two occasions ran out of the school building. During one of those incidents, the child ran out of the building unnoticed by school personnel, ran a mile down the road, crossed a very busy street, and ended up at a convenience store. She was absent from the school for more than two hours, and no one could account for her whereabouts. The child’s mother got her a service dog that is trained specifically to deal with “running”—the dog is tethered to the child in class, and if the child manages to separate from her service dog, the dog will alert others.

The child’s school refused to permit her to bring the service dog to the school. Fortunately, after discussions with school administrators and no formal legal intervention, the child was allowed to bring her service dog to school. 

A second matter invokes more of the Fair Housing Act with elements of the ADA present.   Some housing communities, or homeowners' associations, prohibit certain structures or modifications, often for aesthetic reasons and to ensure uniformity. Conflicts arise when fencing is prohibited, yet is needed to keep a child with autism from running out of the yard and into the road. Prohibiting the fence would violate the law. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act, along with the Fair Housing Act, protect children and adults on the autism spectrum. For some children and adults, protecting their rights can be a matter of safety.

Feel free to ask Julie questions regarding the ADA. She can be reached at jsmills@columbus.rr.com.