Summer Camp Crackdown: DOJ Enforcement under the ADA

by Shipman & Goodwin LLP
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With summer right around the corner, it is time for many parents to start signing up their children for summer camp.  For most, enrolling children in camp usually is a smooth and uneventful process requiring the completion of an application form.  For parents of children with disabilities, however, admission into summer camp can sometimes be a difficult and complicated process if a child requires accommodations in order to attend and participate in a camp program.

As camps and other summer programs begin preparing for the onset of summer, now is a good time to be reminded of obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) which require entities, such as summer camps, to provide accommodations to children with disabilities seeking to enroll and participate in their programs.  Summer camps, like many other public and private entities, are subject to the ADA’s requirements.  Compliance with the ADA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice (the “DOJ”).  The hallmark requirement of the ADA is the obligation to provide “reasonable accommodations” to covered individuals.  A reasonable accommodation is one that does not fundamentally alter the nature of the program or services provided by the camp or which does not otherwise cause an undue burden on the program.  What constitutes an “undue burden” depends on a number of factors; however, it is critical that camps engage in a thoughtful and individualized decision-making process to determine whether a particular child’s needs may be accommodated before summarily dismissing certain applicants from consideration for enrollment.

Summer camps are not obligated to enroll children who are not otherwise qualified to participate in a camp program, even with a reasonable accommodation.  For instance, a child with a disability that prevents the child from playing basketball need not be admitted to a basketball camp.  Still, summer camps must be careful not to impose nonessential eligibility criteria that screens out or tends to screen out children with disabilities and must also ensure that the programs meet all architectural standards for physical accessibility.

A recent article published in the Hartford Courant highlights the difficulties faced by some parents of children with disabilities when seeking to find summer camps for their children, and recent enforcement efforts to ensure campus are ADA compliant.  By way of example, the article tells the story of a child with diabetes who was told by a camp that it could not accommodate the child as it did not have a nurse on staff and was unwilling to hire one.  In that case, the camp was faulted for failing to consider if there were alternatives to hiring a nurse that might have permitted the child to attend, and the camp was required to provide training for staff members prior to the start of camp on how to follow the child’s  treatment plan so that he could participate in the program.

The example cited by this article reflects a common misconception that children with certain disabilities are unable to attend summer camps without a permanent nurse on staff.  Examples of other policies that violate the ADA include the following:

  • A requirement that a parent must stay with their child for the duration of the camp day;
  • A requirement that a parent visit their child throughout the day; and
  • A practice of rejecting children with disabilities based on policies prohibiting non-licensed staff from administering medication.

A review of the DOJ’s recent enforcement reveals that the agency has been particularly vigilant in monitoring and enforcing ADA compliance in summer camps and other summer and after-school programs.  These efforts are highlighted in an April 2015 letter and brochure issued by the DOJ describing the ADA’s application to summer camps and issuing a reminder to these entities of their legal obligations under federal law.  The following recent DOJ settlement agreements also illustrate the DOJ’s peaked interest in the area of ADA compliance:

  • Settlement Agreement between the U.S. and Hospital for Special Care (2014).  In this case, Parents filed a complaint alleging that a summer camp program (operated by the hospital)  refused to modify its policies to permit their son, who had Type 1 diabetes, to attend the camp. Though the camp sought and obtained a waiver to permit non-medical staff to administer insulin and glucagon so that the child could attend the last two-week session of the camp, the child’s mother (who was a hospital employee) had to use her family and medical leave to take care of her child that summer.  To resolve the complaint, the hospital agreed to modify its policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a disability; provide mandatory ADA training to employees of the camp; make best efforts to seek waivers from the CT Department of Public Health to administer certain medications before the start of the summer; and to restore the mother’s lost family and medical leave.
  • Settlement Agreement between the U.S. and the Town of Rocky Hill (2012).  In another case involving a child with diabetes, parents complained that a camp operated by the town did not immediately admit children using insulin pumps to a town operated park and recreation program.  By the time the camp confirmed that it could provide trained supervisors, the parents had made other summer arrangements.  Under the agreement, the town agreed to modify its policies; provide mandatory ADA training to its employees; and pay the complainants a sum of $1,650.
  • Settlement Agreement Between the U.S. and Camp Bravo (2015).  A child with epilepsy was denied admission to Camp Bravo because of the camp’s policy against administering medication.  Camp Bravo agreed to adopt and enforce an Anti-Seizure Medication Administration Policy and Procedure providing for the administration of medication to campers with epilepsy as long as parents and guardians bore the expense of all necessary equipment and supplies.  It also agreed to provide mandatory ADA and epilepsy training to its employees, to allow the complainant’s child to attend the camp for all future sessions, and to pay the complainant a sum of $8,000.

As programs seek to ensure compliance with the ADA, we offer the following practical suggestions for camps and other summer programs to consider:

  • Review policies related to the administration of medication.  Know what state requirements apply to your program, whether waivers exists to such requirements, and the circumstances under which summer staff are permitted to administer medications.
  • Ensure enrollment materials contain a non-discrimination statement and identify an individual (or individuals) designated to respond to questions about accommodations.
  • Evaluate each request for accommodation on an individual basis.  Gather all relevant facts and consider alternatives before issuing a blanket denial.
  • If you lease your space to another summer camp, consider a contractual clause that the entity comply with the ADA and indemnify you if claims of violations are made.
  • Educate parents about the rights of their children with disabilities.
  • Encourage parents to apply as early as possible to summer programs so the school has time to train staff.
  • Keep in mind that violations of the ADA could lead to financial liability.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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