Private school allegedly discriminates against physically disabled child

Last week we heard Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of Education, suggest that states be allowed to decide whether or not they would abide by laws concerning students with disabilities. Yesterday, The Boston Globe published a story about a disabled 5-year-old girl that shows us just what that would look like.

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Harper Oates was born with a spinal cord injury that left her a quadriplegic. Though physically disabled, Harper’s doctors found that cognitively, she tested one to two years ahead of other children her age. So when it was time for her to start school, her parents, Dawn and Justin Oates, applied to The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts, an elite private school serving children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Harper’s father went to Park and her 6-year-old twin siblings are currently enrolled there.

Considering her above-average intelligence and her family’s relationship with the school, Harper’s admission should have been a sure thing. That’s why her parents were shocked when she was denied admission because, as the school put it in their letter to the family, “[Harper] would have required additional accommodations that would have fundamentally altered our educational model.”

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That’s some BS. Here’s why: Harper doesn’t need any special accommodations, a fact that her parents emphasized when she applied. She has a full-time aide that would be with her throughout the school day. The school, however, stated in their letter that they decided Harper would also need “occupational and physical therapists as well as speech-language pathologists,” changes that they were “not required or equipped to make.”

And therein lies the issue. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Stan Eicher, the director of litigation at the Disability Law Center, said that schools can’t deny applications just because “the person would require extra staffing or a modification of their rules and policies.” The modifications necessary would have to cause “an undue burden or fundamentally alter how they operate.” The Park School is claiming that this is the case, but Harper’s parents, the family’s lawyer and the pediatrician who has seen Harper since she was 10 months old all disagree with the school.

Making accommodations that satisfy the requirements of the ADA, particularly in schools that have never done so before, can be hard. But you know what’s harder? Being a disabled child who wants and deserves a quality education but is being told by schools that it would be too much work to accept them. Disabled children have the same right to a good education as every other child in America. That’s something that shouldn’t have to be said. But given that our possible head of the Department of Education seems to disagree with that premise, we may have to say it more often and more loudly in order to fight for kids like Harper (who was, by the way, subsequently accepted to another private school just a mile away from Park.)

As Harper’s mom Dawn said, “I’m not looking for easy… I’m just looking for possible.”

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