One Mom Files An ADA Complaint Against Midget Football

March 20, 2012

Sometimes I just can't help it.  I try to be a modern, politically correct guy but at my age of 60, there's so much prior negative conditioning that it's tough. Take this recent Department of Justice Press Release headline that caught my attention: "Justice Department Settles with Mountain Valley, Pa., Midget Football League Under the Americans with Disabilities Act" (March 20, 2012).

Before you read further, you tell me: What do you think that this lawsuit was about?  And, c'mon, PC aside, be honest.

Spoiler Alert

To be candid, I thought it was some football league that was using "midgets" as a means of attracting fans. Given my understanding that the term "midget" is now deemed an offensive reference to an individual with the medical condition of dwarfism, I simply assumed that this was a discrimination lawsuit against a football league that had recruited only "little people."

Reasonable Accommodation

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the mother of a seven-year-old boy with ocular albinism - the condition that results in low or non-existent levels of eye pigment - had filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") against the Mountain Valley, PA Midget Football League.

Apparently the "midgets" in that league were youngsters.

The mother's complaint alleged that her son was extremely sensitive to sunlight and required a tinted visor in his helmet in order to play.  The Midget Football League apparently consulted with some lawyers and other grumpy folks and decided that it would be too much of a liability to permit this child to use a tinted visor.  He could play with sunglasses, perhaps, but no tinted visor - but for the fact that if those sunglasses got knocked off, his eyes would be exposed to the glaring sunlight.

Talk about escalation - the mother's complaint was investigated by the Department of Justice, which determined that the league had violated the ADA by failing to make a reasonable modification of its policies, practices and procedures to permit the boy to use a tinted visor when playing football.  In settling the case, the league was required to:

  • develop and implement a disability rights policy;
  • train league officials on the requirements of the ADA;
  • grant requests for reasonable modifications, like the one at issue here; and
  • pay $1,000.00 to the complainant's family.

NOAH Online Forum Posting

In researching this case, I found The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation ("NOAH") Online Community, and came upon a forum thread on NOAH's website titled: "Using a tinted visor in midget football vs tinted rec specs". I think that I actually uncovered the mother of the little boy who was at the heart of the Department of Justice's case.  "anthonysmom05" posted a letter on August 1, 2011, that she sent to local newspapers:

Anthony has corrected vision of about 20/200, has nystagmus (involuntary eye movement) refractive esotropia (eye turns inward) sometimes called a "lazy eye"and due to the lack of pigment in his retinas,he has photophobia ( a sensitivity to bright light and glare).

Anthony wants to play midget football this year for Saltsburg Midget Football and as parents we think that his using a tinted football visor was the best solution to keeping the sunlight and any glare from harming his eyes. By using the tinted visor, it would keep the sunlight from coming in from not only above the eyes, but at the sides also. The tinted visor is shatter resistant and would block out the UV rays. Saltsburg Midget Football belongs to The Mountain Valley Midget Football League,and the league directors will not allow him to use the visor. Instead they want him to wear sunglasses even though his eye doctor wrote a letter stating that it is medically necessary for him to use the tinted visor.

I am afraid that if he wears the sunglasses they could fall off of his face during this contact sport and then he would not be able to see anything be cause he will automatically close his eyes because it is to bright for him to see. If this happens there is the possibility that he could be hurt.

The leagues reasoning is that even though PIAA does not govern midget football,those are the rules that they decided to adopt. PIAA rules states that "The principal may authorize in writing the use of an eye shield (visor) by a football player upon receipt of a written statement from a licensed physician of medicine or osteopathic medicine or optometrist in which the doctor prescribes or requires the use of an eye shield in football". It also states that a tinted eye shield may not be worn. It also goes on to say that if a PIAA-member school elects to have one or more of it's player use the eye shield that school assumes all risk and responsibility and liability for any circumstances that may arise out of the use of the eye shield.

I think that these rules were set into place for the average person. Anthony is not the average person. He has a special need and should be reasonably accommodated. I feel that the league is being discriminatory and taking away our rights as parents, that have a child with a disability, to decide what is best for him. They did not even try to understand his disability before saying no. As I was waiting for them to bring it up during the meeting, (which they did not I had to) I could tell that their minds were made up. They were not even interested in reading the letter that his doctor wrote. It also seemed to me that they were not concerned about what was best for Anthony, but what was the best for the league. They were only concerned about the liability issue it may cause.

Anthony has a disability and we want him to be accommodated so that he can play football to the best of his ability.

In writing to you I was hoping that it would help Anthony's case and possibly get the information out about Ocular Albinism. One male in 60,000 has this condition so it is very rare. Some rules should not be all "black" and "white", sometimes there needs to be the gray area where certain situations are open for discussion.

I hope that you will be interested in running this story. I think that it needs to be shared with the public. There may be other parents who have children with the same problem and feel like I do, and don't know where to turn or how to get the rules changed.

Bill Singer's Comment

Okay, look, I often read about these ADA cases and what the government thinks is a reasonable modification doesn't always strike me as one - the costs imposed in implementing such provisions could often prove crippling to the subject individuals or organizations.  Here, however, it seems like we have an almost perfect example of what constitutes "reasonable." Moreover, the requested modification can be implemented at little, if any, significant cost.  Further, making this visor exception won't constitute giving a materially unfair advantage to one player or causing a major disruption in any midget football league game.

It's not as if the kid was asking for a free pair of $1,000 Nike or Reebok football shoes or a free pass for Dick's Sporting Goods. He wasn't asking for a new Apple iPad to allow him to chart his blocking assignments.  Hell, he didn't even demand the latest General Motors or Ford luxury car to take him to the game.  This was just a little fellow who wanted to put on a helmet with a tinted visor and play football.  Sure, I appreciate that the grown-ups were worried about liability and that there's lots of nonsense out there parading as laws, rules, and regulations.  On the other hand, it's a little boy with a vision problem.
Ultimately, isn't America a great place.  The full brunt of the law comes into force to make it possible for a kid with a disability to play football. All of which is possible because his mother refused to take "no" for an answer when it came to her son and didn't give a damn if she had to turn this into a federal case, which she did.

I don't know about you but I like the outcome and the story.

READ a reply from the little boy's mom in the "Comment" section to this story as it first ran in my "Street Sweeper" column on