Pinning It Down: Section 504 and Reasonable Accommodations in Kempf V. The Michigan High School Athletic Association

waterside_school_frontR_72DPI_RGBLess than two weeks after a deaf high school wrestler filed suit against Michigan’s governing body for interscholastic athletics, the parties voluntarily entered into a December 11, 2015 Consent Decree, thereby resolving Ellis Kempf v The Michigan High School Athletic Association. In his lawsuit, the wrestler, Ellis Kempf, alleged that the Association had, in part, violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to permit a sign language interpreter within reasonable proximity of the student during wrestling matches. Specifically, Kempf claimed that the Association’s refusal to allow sign language interpreters to leave a designated position “well off the mat” placed him at a disadvantage because he could not access instructions from his coach and was sometimes even unable to tell when matches had started and ended.

In their December 11, 2015 Consent Decree, the parties agreed that sign language interpreters would be permitted to be present at all matches involving a deaf or hearing-impaired wrestler. Furthermore, the interpreters would be allowed 360-degree access around the 28-foot Active Wrestling Circle on the mat, which demarcates the in-bounds area within which wrestlers must stay during their matches. In larger gymnasiums, the sign language interpreters would be required to stay six feet from the Active Wrestling Circle at all times, while in smaller venues, the appropriate distance would be determined by the interpreter in conjunction with the referee. Needless to say, it would be incumbent upon the sign language interpreter to stay outside the Active Wrestling Circle, to avoid contact with the wrestlers or referees, and to make all reasonable efforts to avoid blocking the views of the referee, scorers and coaches.

So What Does It Mean?

Ellis Kempf’s lawsuit illustrates the concerns that prompted the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to issue a January 25, 2013 “Dear Colleague” letter, setting forth the right of disabled students to participate in extracurricular activities, particularly sports. The thrust of OCR’s January 2013 letter was that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal fund recipients, such as public schools, to provide disabled students, through the use of appropriate accommodations, with an equitable opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in both tryouts and actual events. While it is surprising that it took the filing of a federal lawsuit to obtain that accommodation in Kempf, the remarkable alacrity with which the parties resolved their differences speaks well of their collective reasonableness.

More importantly, Kempf underscores the necessity of statewide athletic associations, school districts, and other federal fund recipients to determine and implement reasonable accommodations for qualified disabled students who would otherwise be precluded from, or be placed at a disadvantage when, participating in sports.