This blog entry was authored by Hengameh S. Safaei
In a case of first impression, K.M. v. Tustin Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit held that a public school district’s compliance with its obligations to a deaf or hearing-impaired student under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) does not necessarily establish compliance with its effective communication obligations to that student under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The case involved two high school students with hearing disabilities who received special education services under the IDEA. Each student requested that her school provide her with Communication Access Realtime Translation (“CART”) in the classroom. CART is a word-for-word transcription service in which a stenographer provides real-time captioning of classroom discussions that appears on a computer monitor.
In both cases, the school denied the request for CART but offered other accommodations. The students unsuccessfully challenged the denial of CART in administrative proceedings and then filed suit in district court. The district court ruled for the school district, holding that the district had complied with the IDEA by providing accommodations other than CART, and that the student’s ADA claim was foreclosed by the failure of her IDEA claim.
On appeal, the students did not challenge that their schools complied with the IDEA. They challenged, however, the Court’s conclusion that since the schools complied with the IDEA, they were not entitled to relief on their ADA claims. The students maintained that the ADA imposes effective communication obligations upon public schools independent of, not coextensive with, obligations under the IDEA.
The Ninth Circuit agreed. The Court compared the requirements of the IDEA and the ADA with respect to students with disabilities and noted that the statutes “differ in both ends and means.” According to the Court, the IDEA sets only a “floor of access” to education for students with communications disabilities, but requires schools to provide individualized services necessary to get a child to that floor, regardless of costs, burdens, or program alterations required. The ADA, on the other hand, requires public entities to take steps toward making existing services not merely accessible, but equally accessible to people with communication disabilities, but only insofar as doing so does not pose an undue burden or require a fundamental alteration of their programs. Given these differences, the Court rejected the reasoning that the success or failure of a student’s IDEA claim dictates, as a matter of law, the success or failure of her ADA claim.
Thus, in some cases, schools may be required under the ADA to provide services to deaf or hearing-impaired students that are different – and perhaps greater – than the services required under the IDEA. The type and level of services required will turn on the specific facts of each case and courts evaluating claims under the IDEA and Title II must analyze each claim separately under the relevant statutory and regulatory frameworks.