Two pre-teen children at center of case receive vindication
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has determined that a children’s theater program in Massachusetts violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), finding that it discriminated against a child with food allergies when it failed to make reasonable modifications for his safety and retaliated against the child’s friend who spoke up on his behalf.
Young Shakespeare Players East (YSPE), a youth theater company in Massachusetts, was found in violation of the ADA after refusing to accommodate then 10-year-old Mason Wicks-Lim, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. While the theater agreed to institute a nut-free policy, it refused to ensure that an adult would be available or willing to administer epinephrine in the case of an allergic emergency.
In a press release from Stein & Vargas, which represented the Wicks-Lim family, Mason’s mother, Ali, said, “I’ll never forget the night I had to tell Mason that, because of his disability, he was not welcome to participate in a program open to his friends. He was so hurt and confused but wanted to take action so other kids would not have to go through what he did.”
Additionally, in its “Letter of Finding,” the DOJ found that the director made a “coercive and intimidating” statement when it asked Mason’s mother to choose between forgoing Mason’s rights or be seen as responsible for shutting down a program her friends’ children valued. According to the DOJ’s investigation, the director told Mason’s mother that rather than grant the needed accommodation, she was considering whether she wanted to continue to operate the program at all.
Equally noteworthy was the finding that the theater director retaliated against a 12-year-old girl who simply stood up for her friend. Sam Picone-Louro sent an email to the director pointing out that food allergies were considered a disability and the theater could not discriminate against Mason. Sam was then told by the camp director that she would be unable to participate in the program unless she formally apologized to the director and entire camp community. Sam refused to apologize and was barred from the program.
In its June 10 ruling, the DOJ found that the retaliation against Sam violated Title III of the ADA, which prohibits private entities that are places of public accommodations, such as the theater program, from discriminating against any individual because that individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by the ADA.
“It has been a difficult year as Sam struggles to accept being excluded for following her heart, but we are so proud of her for doing what she felt was right,” Sam’s parents said in a press release.
“It costs nothing to include a child with a food allergy just like it costs nothing to refrain from retaliating against young people who have the courage to stand up for the rights of a friend,” attorney Mary Vargas said in a press release.
Attorney Laurel Francoeur, who also represented the children, added, “While the Letter of Finding cannot undo the shocking attacks YSPE launched in response to the complaints … it does send a clear message that retaliation and discrimination against children will not be tolerated, even by those who claim to do good.”
FARE salutes Mason and Sam for sticking up for what they believe in and for bringing the topic to the forefront of food allergy awareness and advocacy.
Editor’s note: The parents of the children involved in the case have consented to use of their full names.