Wednesday, 29 May 2013 08:12
By Doug Hanson
The U. S. District Court for Maryland recently held that a paintball facility would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by adopting a policy prohibiting all blind individuals from playing paintball. The court, however, held, in this factually driven decision, that the paintball facility here made a proper judgment call by denying access due to last minute “direct threat” safety concerns posed to other paintballing patrons.
Late bird does not get the worm
A group of legally blind individuals called a paintball center and made reservations to play paintball. The group reserved a busy slot on a Saturday afternoon. The paintball facility, unaware that the group was legally blind, requested that the group arrive one hour early for orientation and safety training pursuant to the facility’s standard protocol.
The group had a long and hot walk to the paintball facility on a summer day and arrived an hour late in an agitated state. The hour late arrival gave the facility no time to provide proper orientation and safety instructions. The group was very argumentative, emotionally charged and the facility operator was concerned about safety issues that may arise for both the group and others not in the group. The safety concern was further bolstered when the facility operator observed one of the group’s members walk into a post. Another member of the group almost fell off a deck outside of the facility operator’s office. After the paintball manager denied the blind patrons the opportunity to participate in the game, a non-profit organization brought this lawsuit on behalf of the paintball deprived.
Safety concerns provide ADA safe harbor
The paintball facility manager testified at trial that she denied the group access due to the group’s late arrival coupled with concerns that the group would require more time for orientation and safety than sighted individuals. The court found that the group could have sufficiently familiarized themselves with the layout of the playing fields to play safely. The court noted, however, that reasonable familiarization with the playing field would have taken more time than that required by a sighted individual.
The court concluded that blind individuals receiving adequate training could play paintball as safely as many sighted participants. The record reflected that the facility would have permitted the group to play had they arrived in sufficient time for proper orientation and safety training and had there not been such an emotionally charged environment. The lack of safety training and the group’s emotional state would have posed a risk of danger to others. Accordingly, the facility did not violate the group’s ADA rights in this case by denying the group access.
This case recognizes the ADA’s requirements to provide those that are legally blind or who suffer for a visually impaired disability with access to services offered by facilities just the same as to non-disabled individuals. Here, a facility’s policy prohibiting all blind individuals from playing paintball would have violated the ADA. A facility, however, may make reasonable decisions based on objective evidence as to whether the circumstances in a specific case would pose a direct threat to the safety of other patrons or employees if a group of, say, legally blind individuals, were permitted to undertake the activity requested. A facility, however, should be very careful in relying upon the threat of danger posed to third-parties exception noted in this case. The district court applied that exception in this case based solely on a number of factually-intense defenses: the group arrived late; could not receive proper orientation and safety training; the group was emotionally charged; and the facility had a previous history of accommodating disabilities when there was adequate time to provide orientation and safety training. Employers should never immediately disregard a disabled individual who requests access to their programs and services, and should always attempt to assess the situation and at least make reasonable lengths to accommodate the disabled patron or employee.
Read the case here.