A close up of a school bus with the reflection of a brick building in the windows.

Protecting Disabled Students’ Legal Recourse Against Discrimination

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools. The case involves a now 23-year-old deaf person who was denied an adequate education while attending public school in Michigan (Supreme Court). The outcome of this case will affect the legal recourses disabled students and their families have in resolving discrimination and other disability rights violations from schools. 


• Support organizations like YO! that connect, organize, and educate youth with disabilities.

• Submit a comment to the California State Bar opposing a proposed rule that would make it harder to receive testing accommodations. You can find a sample comment here.

• Learn how to make your classroom more accessible by following this resource guide from the Canadian Journal for Disability Studies.

Case Overview

Miguel Perez was nine when he emigrated to the states from Mexico and was enrolled in a Michigan public school. Perez, who is deaf and communicates through sign language, was assigned a classroom aide who remained with him for the duration of his schooling. Despite receiving As and Bs in his classes and making the honor roll every semester, Perez and his parents were notified months before his high school graduation that he would not receive a diploma but a certificate of completion. For 12 years, the school district misled the family about Perez’s grades and academic standing and his classroom aide’s qualifications, who wasn’t trained to work with deaf students and didn’t know sign language.

Perez filed a due process complaint to the Michigan Department of Education against the school district for violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and two state laws. Perez and the school district settled before a hearing on the IDEA claim, with the school agreeing to pay for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf, any post-secondary compensatory education, sign language instruction for Perez and his family, and the family’s attorney’s fees. The other claims, including the ADA claim, were dismissed since it was outside that administrative court’s jurisdiction.  

Months later, Perez sued the school district in federal court for monetary damages under the ADA for discriminating against him by not providing the necessary resources to participate fully in class in the first place. The court dismissed the ADA claim, stating that Perez failed to exhaust administrative proceedings when he settled his IDEA claim before a hearing. The lower courts maintain that Perez needed to follow through with the IDEA claim, despite receiving the full extent of what the claim could have offered via the district’s settlement. At the very least, in doing so, it would’ve provided a record that would have “improved the accuracy and efficiency of judicial proceedings.” 

In short, Perez would’ve needed to reject the district’s immediate offer for free public education and follow through with time-consuming and costly litigation, which would further delay his education in order to get an education and remedy the civil rights violations. 

Why It Matters

The public education system fails to provide an equal playing field when accounting for a student’s zip code and race. This is especially true for disabled students. Even with protections like the IDEA, education is still inaccessible. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was enacted in 1975, Congress promised to cover 40% of the average cost of educating a disabled student (National Council on Disability, Congressional Research Service). Today, the “federal government pays less than half of what it originally promised,” resulting in school districts citing a “lack of funding as an excuse to limit the level of support and services” to disabled students. 

And when trying to remedy these violations, families are routinely penalized or prevented from fully remedying the harm done to them. Parents of low-income and minority students with disabilities were at a greater disadvantage in resolving school disputes regarding the student’s educational needs (Government Accountability Office). These challenges included inadequate legal representation, language barriers, limited alternative education options, and fear of retaliation from districts alerting child protective services agencies or immigration officials. 

“Students with disabilities already face inordinate obstacles in getting the education they need to build their future,” said Shira Wakschlag, Senior Director of Legal Advocacy and General Counsel at the Arc (ARC). “From inadequate accommodations and low expectations to restraint, seclusion and poor support, parents and children are too often forced to become experts in self-advocacy and the law in order to obtain services and supports they are entitled to.”

The Key Questions in Consideration

Does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require families who have settled their IDEA claims to exhaust all administrative proceedings under the IDEA before they can file a claim under other federal laws, even when doing so would be futile? 

Are families who sue for monetary damages under the ADA or other federal disability laws required to comply with IDEA’s requirements in these non-IDEA claims?

A Brief Overview of Disability Laws

Broadly, these acts are meant to protect disabled people and offer redress if a secondary party (employer, school, business) is in violation. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools that receive federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education are legally obligated to provide disabled students with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and provide additional services and aids to meet their individual educational needs (Department of Education, United States Code).

IDEA emphasizes mediation in resolving disputes between the school and families when parents feel their child has been denied a FAPE and quick resolutions agreed upon by both parties. There is an exhaustion of administrative procedures requirement, but it is contested whether it can be bypassed if deemed futile or unnecessary. The end goal is for every disabled student to get an adequate education. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the civil rights of disabled people, prohibiting discrimination against individuals in any public setting or entity, including schools (ADA). The Rehabilitation Act bans discrimination based on disability in programs or agencies receiving federal funding. Under the 504 section, providing “reasonable accommodations” is required (ADA).

So, IDEA is supposed to ensure you get the education you’re entitled to. But it wouldn’t address the harm caused by discovering that, at minimum, four years of your academic career were all for naught and that you would have to reattend schooling for four more years to make up for that deception and lack of accommodation, thus stalling any future endeavors and potential loss of income. This is where the ADA and Rehabilitation Act steps in, providing compensatory damages for distress or harm caused by discrimination or unequal access.

What You Can Do

Disabled students shouldn’t have to go through bureaucratic hurdles to get an education. Nor should they be forced to choose between receiving an education or pursuing monetary damages to right an injustice, especially since they’re already saddled with the hidden costs of living with a disability–the money, time, and energy required to navigate an ableist society.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, it is important for us to fix the education system and disability laws that fail to empower disabled children. This will mean making accessible education that caters to diverse students the standard, not a last-minute accommodation. We all benefit when we lead with accessibility, especially disabled children.


• Disabled students are supposed to receive a free public education with the accommodations necessary to ensure their success. 

• Schools often fail to provide the required services due to a lack of funding. 

• Disability laws are meant to protect and circumvent the shortcomings of an ableist system. 

2400 1500 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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