When Dov Nathanson, a deaf fourth-grader, plays football, the vibrations from a drum on the sidelines help him feel the “huts” barked by the quarterback. A sign-language interpreter allows him to follow along in team huddles.
When Dov’s parents felt that the Spring Lake Park Panther Youth Football Association was balking at the cost and perceived inconvenience of such accommodations, they sued it under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. A federal judge recently refused to throw out the lawsuit.
Now the league has agreed to accommodate deaf players and parents as part of a settlement. It will establish a disability access fund, deposit $3,000 into a college savings plan for Dov and pay $5,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs for the Nathanson family.
Both sides have expressed relief that a settlement was reached, but still disagree about what led to it.
The football association had argued that disability access laws don’t apply to a nonprofit association run by volunteers. Even if the ADA did apply, the cost would have been an undue hardship, it argued.
For parents Gloria and David Nathanson, the outcome is a bittersweet victory.
When the settlement came, Dov had already switched to the White Bear Lake Youth Football Assocation, which agreed to pay for interpreters and allow the drum. The family has also moved from Fridley to White Bear Lake.
“It is unfortunate that this particular association was so resistant to doing what most associations are ready and eager to do — allow deaf players to feel included and equally valued,” said Heather Gilbert, the Nathansons’ attorney. “ … Hopefully with … this settlement, the next deaf boys who want to play sports in Spring Lake Park won’t have the same experience.”
Laurel Pugh, an attorney for the Spring Lake Panther Youth Football Association, said the settlement was a welcome conclusion to what could have been a costly federal court case.
Pugh said the fledging Spring Lake Park league, which had recently spun off from a Blaine league, had been trying to work with the Nathansons on accommodations and was blindsided by the lawsuit.
A donation the Nathansons had secured from the Lions Club was paying for some interpreters in the Spring Lake Park association in 2014, Gilbert said. The Nathansons also spent $250 of their own money on interpreters, Gilbert said.
Coaches objected to the drum because it alerted the opposing team as well as Dov, Pugh said.
“The league did ask the parents to please help. Everyone is a volunteer in this organization,” said Pugh, whose two sons also play in the league. “Paying for an expense like that — it would have truly bankrupted them that first year. They were grateful to get the funding from the Lions Club.”
Citing tax documents, Gilbert, the Nathansons’ attorney, said the association had $5,000 left at the end of the year and could have easily paid for interpreters, a cost estimated at $1,500 for the 2014 season.
The family’s story
For the Nathanson family, accommodation is an all-too-common struggle.
David and Gloria Nathanson and two of their four children are deaf. David is an American Sign Language teacher at White Bear Lake High School and Gloria is a licensed audiologist.
The Nathansons say they made the difficult choice to sue the nonprofit because volunteer-run youth sports leagues pick up the slack for school districts and feed into high school programs. If all nonprofits denied access, claiming financial hardship, children with disabilities would be shut out, they said.
When Dov joined youth football in 2011, Fridley Public Schools paid for interpreters as part of his “individual education plan,” even though the league was run by an outside nonprofit. His younger brother, Galvin, followed him into the sport in 2013.
The Fridley district pulled the plug on the funding in 2014 after determining it was not a school-sponsored event.
The Nathansons asked the football league to provide accommodations, but said its leaders were hostile, essentially forcing them out. They contend that the league was even cold to the family’s fundraising efforts. The league also rejected David Nathanson’s request to coach, they said.
“The look of bewilderment and hurt on our sons’ faces when we explained what was happening broke our hearts,” David and Gloria Nathanson wrote in an e-mail.
Dov suited up this season for the Grizzlies as part of the nonprofit White Bear Lake Youth Football Association. The Lions Club donated $3,000 to help pay for interpreters in that league. David Nathanson served as an assistant coach. Interpreters and a drum help both father and son follow the game.
“It’s really gone as smoothly as you can possibly imagine,” said Grizzlies head coach Pat Delaney.
Bev Sorenson’s son and grandson have played in the White Bear league. Providing access is “ an easy thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do,” she said at a recent game.