As reported by Asbury Park Press, a Holmdel High School student is claiming that school officials prohibited her from coming on to the stage to receive her high school diploma during last week’s graduation ceremony. The incident has sparked outrage from some in the community concerning the school’s lack of planning and communication to accommodate the student’s ability to come onto the stage with her wheelchair. To their credit, school officials fully accepted blame and have apologized to the student for what it has referred to as a significant mistake. This unfortunate incident is an example of the profound impact that a failure to provide necessary accommodations to a disabled person can have in his or her life experiences.
Individuals who suffer from disabilities face significant obstacles throughout their lives, which include often being excluded from certain activities and other life events. Both federal and state laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination were enacted to prohibit certain forms of discrimination in employment, schools and in other public places of accommodation. These anti-discrimination disability laws are designed to provide disabled employees the assistance they need in order to be employed, receive an education and be properly accommodated in the public domain.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination specifically identifies schools as a place of public accommodation. A place of public accommodation may not discriminate against disabled persons and must provide reasonable accommodations unless it is shown that the requested or needed accommodation would impose an undue hardship. If a disabled student needs or requests a reasonable accommodation, the school must initiate an interactive process to search and determine what appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary. This interactive process requires the school to take some initiative and identify the potential reasonable accommodations that could be adopted to overcome the student’s precise limitations resulting from the disability. The law requires all parties to act in good faith to explore potential accommodations. A school that obstructs or delays the interactive process or fails to communicate with the other party will be viewed as not acting in good faith. When this occurs, the courts will attempt to isolate the cause of the breakdown and then assign responsibility.
Holmdel senior, Lilli Portmann, suffers spinal muscular atrophy type 3, which requires her to use a motorized wheelchair. According to her older sister, the school conducted a rehearsal for graduation, but is unclear what, if anything, the school did to prepare and accommodate Ms. Portmann to come on stage to receive her diploma. While it is clear that there was a breakdown in the interactive process, it is unclear why, when, and how the breakdown occurred. Based upon the video, Ms. Portmann was clearly attempting to move on stage in her wheelchair but was stopped by certain administrators from getting on stage. The result is that Ms. Portmann was denied the opportunity to come on stage and receive her diploma in the same manner as the rest of her graduating class.
It is important to recognize that Holmdel High School administrators have accepted full responsibility for the incident. This is a great first step in making sure this unfortunate episode is never repeated with any other disabled students. Despite the school’s commendable response, the incident demonstrates the importance of providing accommodations to disabled individuals ahead of time and assuring that all persons responsible are aware of the school’s duty to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled students.