Court: Museum must provide caregivers free admission

Admission practices violate ADA
Admission practices violate ADA

A federal court ruled May 9 that a Philadelphia-based museum violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to waive the admission fee for a caregiver assisting a patron with disabilities.

Michael Anderson, a 35-year-old man with quadriplegia, uses a caregiver 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Upon entering the Franklin Institute on multiple occasions in 2013 and 2014, museum employees informed Anderson that both he and his caregiver would have to pay $25 to enter the museum, as well as the museum’s IMAX theater and other special exhibits.

Anderson and the nonprofit Vision for Equality subsequently sued the museum, on the basis that this dual admission requirement runs contrary to the ADA’s protection for people with disabilities to the “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges advantages or accommodation” of places of public accommodation, which includes museums.

The museum contended that the plaintiff’s request exceeded the ADA’s mandate, analogizing the scenario to that of a “parent accompanying a minor child or a professional tour guide seeking admissions.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania rejected this argument, rebutting that the museum’s position represents a “lack of appreciation” for the ADA’s  structure for protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

“Because disabled people are not similarly situated to the able-bodied, a facially neutral policy can still result in discrimination,” the ruling states. “The ADA was promulgated in part to level the playing field for disabled individuals, who begin with a disadvantage.

“Stated differently, if disabled persons protected under the ADA were similarly situated to all other persons, there would be no need for the ADA in the first place. The need to offset that disadvantage is what justifies preferential treatment of disabled persons when warranted under the statute.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, the museum has waived the general admission fee for caregivers, but retains it for patrons seek to enter the IMAX or special exhibits. It is considering appealing the decision, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

For disability advocates, the decision represents a potential breakthrough in the fight for disability access to such institutions.

“We hope that museums and other institutions throughout the country will modify their policies to conform to the ADA,” Stephen Gold of the Public Interest Law Center, which represented the plaintiff, said in a statement according to the Legal Intelligencer. “Without a (personal care attendant), many severely disabled people cannot visit and enjoy these facilities. Without a PCA, they cannot be fully and equally integrated in a community’s programs and benefits.”