Sometimes it’s the relatively small victories that are the most satisfying. The ones that go unnoticed by the wider world but which make a tangible, enriching difference in the life of a disabled person.
Leigh Law Group recently had one such victory for a young man with autism that serves to reinforce why we do what we do. J.S. is a young man diagnosed with moderate to severe autism. He has extreme difficulty in social settings and in doing pretty much anything that a typical high school student takes for granted. However, one thing that J.S. can do well is run. For the past 5 years, J.S. has participated on his school’s cross country and track and field teams with the help of a Section 504 Rehabilitation Act accommodation which provided J.S. with a running assistant. This assistant would accompany J.S. during practices — in order to translate the instruction of the coaches and to accompany J.S. on distance runs through the town. This is the only way J.S. could access the athletic program in a manner equal to other students or in a meaningful way. Through this participation, J.S. was able to experience the social comradery and personal challenge that athletics provides. It was also one area where he was as good as his peers. Through athletics, J.S. gained confidence and pride in his accomplishments. His teammates also benefited from seeing J.S. battle through his disabling condition and run just as fast as they did. They looked at J.S. in a new light.
As we said initially, this worked well for five years until, just prior to J.S.’s senior year, the school district took away the accommodation for the running assistant. The school district offered only to have an aide sit in a chair and observe J.S. run — J.S. was required to remain in visual distance of the seated aide. As you have likely gathered, this changed “accommodation” rendered J.S. unable to run in cross country since the very definition of cross country is long distance runs that would almost immediately take J.S. out of the visual perception of the aide. J.S.’s parent pleaded with the district to no avail. The district would not relent and J.S. lost the ability to participate in cross country. J.S. had previously ran a 7:20/mile pace.
J.S. also needs this accommodation for track and field as there are distance runs throughout the town and because J.S. simply cannot process the coaches’ instructions in the manner his typical peers can — he needs more individualized instruction.
J.S.’s parent decided that for the fast approaching track and field season she had no other option but to challenge the district legally. After hiring the Leigh Law Group we put all hands on deck to file a complaint in federal court in San Francisco and to prepare an application for a temporary restraining order requiring the district to implement the longstanding accommodation which allowed J.S. to participate in track and field. The Court, based on our filings, immediately required the district to respond as to why J.S. should not receive the accommodation. After the district’s response, we filed a reply the next day and the Court entered a temporary restraining order requiring the accommodation and requiring further response from the school district. J.S. was immediately able to participate in track and field as his parent had identified a qualified assistant to run with J.S.
The school district then offered to immediately settle the matter and to provide J.S. with the reasonable accommodation that allows him to meaningfully participate in track and field. Case closed.
So, will history mark this moment? Hardly. Very few will notice or care about the result. But as we look back on our professional accomplishments and forward to those to come, we will have an indelible image of J.S. running alongside his peers, running through the streets of his town, running because he is just as good as anyone else at it. And that image will drive us to be better in all that we do too; to strive when the odds are against us; to realize that small victories for vulnerable members of our society can outweigh more traditional measures of success. To never stop running.
Leigh Law Group is an education law, employment law and civil rights law firm based in California with offices in San Francisco, Marin County, the East Bay and Los Angeles. Leigh Law Group