The baseball season is fast approaching, and that includes Little League. These are indelible symbols of our American values, but they still must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In 1992, Little League, Inc. adopted a policy saying that coaches in wheelchairs were not allowed on the baseball field, but had to coach from the dugout. After one tries to visualize how that could possibly work, the logical next question to ask is why. That’s the question that was asked by the players and the parents, but no clear answer was given.
A coach who was a wheelchair user sued Little League Baseball, Inc. and he won. The Arizona federal district court first held that Little League met the definition of a “public accommodation” (see the “public accommodation” page on this website.) The court also clarified that the ADA does not require any organization to put people in danger, but that danger must be real:
“In determining whether an individual, such as plaintiff, poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, a public accommodation must make an individualized assessment, based on reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence, to ascertain: (1) the nature, duration, and severity of the risk; (2) the probability that the potential injury will actually occur; and (3) whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices, or procedures will mitigate the risk.”
In other words, the court said, Little League Baseball, Inc. had a legal obligation to assess the realistic danger posed by this particular individual in this situation. And in this case, the coach had been coaching from the field for three years without posing any kind of safety hazard and was very popular among parents and players. “Moreover,” the court said, “plaintiff’s significant contributions of time, energy, enthusiasm, and personal example benefit the numerous children who participate in Little League activities as well as the community at large. Plaintiff’s work with young people teaches them the importance of focusing on the strengths of others and helping them rise to overcome their personal challenges.”
Baseball was the first sport that accepted an African-American player on a major league team. Baseball also has players from a wide variety of countries and cultures, exemplifying diversity and inclusion. It is very reassuring that the court extended that philosophy to include people with disabilities.