In an effort to break down some, if not all, of the barriers facing students with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require that schools make accommodations for students with disabilities that do not fundamentally change the nature of the activity. The question of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation, therefore, is usually vital to most ADA and Rehabilitation Act cases.
"S.S.," the plaintiff in Schor v. Whitesboro Central School District [2012 U.S. Dist. Lexis 11727], was a high school freshman who suffered severe anxiety attacks in public. Upon enrolling at Whitesboro Senior High School, S.S. joined the school's swim team. S.S.'s parents on numerous occasions informed the school and the coach what to do when she suffered an anxiety attack — during severe onsets of anxiety, they said, S.S. would experience fears of drowning and would need to exit the pool to ease her anxiety. S.S. experienced a severe anxiety attack at a time trial and at a swim meet, and in both cases, her coach showed little compassion, at one point threatening to kick her off the swim team.
As a result of the coach's unwillingness to make accommodations, S.S.'s disability was exacerbated to such an extent that she was unable to attend school for the rest of the fall semester, and her parents filed a lawsuit seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief. In ruling in favor of the school district, the court held that S.S. failed to meet all of the requirements of the law. In particular, the court held that S.S. failed to show that she was otherwise qualified to meet all of the swim team program's requirements, noting that an essential requirement of being a member of the swim team is that the person must be able to swim when called upon to do so. In addition, the court said that S.S. failed to show what reasonable accommodations the school district could have made for this particular disability.
This last point notwithstanding, the Whitesboro Central School District and in particular the swim coach may want to review how they handle such cases in the future. The coach's behavior — threatening to kick a student with an emotional disability off the team (and allegedly thinking that she could tell when the student was having a "real" attack) — was insensitive and wrongheaded. In the end, S.S. had to quit the team and drop out of school, so while no laws may have been broken, the school and the coach ought to have worked harder to find a better solution.