LIVING WITH A DISABILITY BY JERRY LEVINSON
Megan, then age 12, sued the Girl Scouts, claiming the organization violated the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by refusing to provide her with sign language services and then by disbanding her troop because her mother complained.
Megan Runnion was active in a Girl Scout troop run by the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, the largest regional Girl Scout organization in the United States. Megan is deaf. For several years she benefitted from sign language interpreters provided by the Girl Scouts that enabled her to participate fully in the troop’s activities. But when Megan’s mother renewed the request for the interpreter in 2011, the Girl Scouts denied her request and, rather than providing the requested interpreter services, disbanded Megan’s troop.
Megan, then age 12, sued the Girl Scouts, claiming the organization violated the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by refusing to provide her with sign language services and then by disbanding her troop because her mother complained. The Act uses the Congressional spending power to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities by providing in Section 504 that, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” A person who has been excluded, denied, or discriminated against may sue the recipient of federal funds to enforce their rights.
The District Court ruled against Megan. It found that private membership organizations like the Girl Scouts could never be subject to the Rehabilitation Act since, according to the court’s interpretation of the Act, it required that the private organization provide a public service and be open to the public.
On Megan’s appeal of the District Court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the appellate court reversed the District Court and found in Megan’s favor. The Seventh Circuit held the District Court misinterpreted the ‘73 Act when the court held that private membership organizations like the Girl Scouts could never be subject to the Rehabilitation Act. On the contrary, according to the appellate court, the anti-discrimination provision in the rehabilitation Act applies broadly to all sorts of private organizations so long as they receive federal funding and are “principally engaged” in social service or educational programs [Megan Runnion v. Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, (7th Cir., 2015)]
According to Howard A. Rosenblum, an attorney and CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, “The Girl Scouts’ refusal to provide interpreter services not only violates federal law, but also is contrary to the founding principles of the Girl Scouts.”•
LIVING WITH A DISABILITY
This column has a simple purpose, but a difficult goal: discuss issues that affect the lives, well being and state of mind of those who must live and cope with a disability and do so in a humorous way whenever possible. This isn’t an easy thing to do, since there’s certainly nothing funny or humorous about being disabled, or in the difficulties and obstacles that those with chronic disabilities encounter daily. However, I’ve personally found that humor has to a great extent helped me cope with my disability (I’ve had Multiple Sclerosis for 45 years and use a wheelchair), and I hope this column helps others in the disability community do so as well.