A Massachusetts family has been vindicated in a protracted legal drama with a youth theater company that centered on the civil rights of a child with severe food allergies.
Back in June 2016, the Department of Justice first found that the Young Shakespeare Players East (YSPE) had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it refused to make accommodations for Mason Wicks-Lim’s allergies to peanuts and nuts and essentially barred the then 10-year-old from the program.
Then on December 18, the DOJ reached a settlement with the theater company. In a press release, the department says the terms are that YSPE will “implement a disability non-discrimination policy; implement a process by which reasonable modifications will be considered and provided to participants with disabilities; and conduct appropriate training.”
In their original complaint, filed in late 2015, the Wicks-Lim family said that accommodations being requested for Mason, then 10 years old, included always being in the presence of an adult trained in the use of an epinephrine auto-injector.
The production that Mason initially wished to participate in was Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and getting to a settlement has certainly been a stormy process.
“The courage it took these families to stand against that kind of pressure and the personal cost they have paid is extraordinary,” says lawyer Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas, who represented Mason. Vargas says that after the 2016 DOJ ruling, the theater company enlisted students and families “in a letter-writing campaign to challenge the DOJ’s finding.”
She says that Mason and his family were treated like outcasts in their community, as was Mason’s friend Sam Picone-Louro and family. The 13-year-old became part of the civil rights complaint (and also barred from the program) over an email in which Sam asked the program director to stop discriminating against Mason.
“This settlement agreement is a vindication of the children who have unfortunately lost friends and mentors and a degree of innocence through this very painful process,” says Vargas. “The ultimate beneficiaries here are the children who come next, who will reap the benefits of Mason and Sam’s courage and who will not be excluded or retaliated against on the basis of disability.”
The YSPE takes a different view of the situation and the settlement. Suzanne Rubenstein, YSPE’s founder and director, maintains her theater troupe has always supported the goals of the ADA.
“By settling, this tiny organization avoids contesting a costly DOJ law suit in federal court about principles on which there is no fundamental disagreement,” says Frank DiPrima, the theater company’s lawyer. “YSPE willingly entered this settlement because, it not only enthusiastically supports, but it lives the principles embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
In the settlement agreement, the DOJ states that the earlier government investigation showed that YSPE had “effectively excluded” Mason from participating in the program, because of the lack of “appropriate reasonable accommodation” for his medical disability. The agreement notes that YSPE challenges the contention that it violated the ADA, but agreed to settle without conceding any liability.
The theater company must submit its new disability non-discrimination policy to the DOJ within 30 days of the agreement for review and approval.
Though this process has been difficult for him, Sam and their families, Mason told Allergic Living in 2015 that “if someone does the wrong thing, you really have to tell them that – or else they’ll keep doing it.”