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U.S. Supreme Court orders dismissal of deaf Texans' suit against state

An effort by five deaf Texans to force the state to offer sign-language interpreters at driver's ed courses has met its end, U.S. Supreme Court justices left open the possibility that a similar case could bubble up again.

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An effort by five deaf Texans to force the state to offer sign-language interpreters at driver's education courses has met its end in the nation’s highest court.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ordered the dismissal of lawsuit, Ivy v. Morath, that sought to hold Texas accountable for discrimination against people with disabilities — even when it farms out public programs to private vendors.

But the justices left open the possibility that a similar case could bubble up again.

Texas requires first-time driver's license applicants under the age 25 to take classes that are typically conducted by private companies. Because Texas requires the classes, the 2011 lawsuit argued, the state should ensure that deaf students have interpreters under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit dismissed the case last year.  Siding with the state, it ruled that driver's education is not a service, program or activity of the Texas Education Agency, which regulated and licensed the driver's education courses when the lawsuit was filed (The duties have since been transferred to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation).

Upon appeal, the Supreme Court vacated the decision and ordered that the case be dismissed on different grounds: The five plaintiffs had either complete driver's education courses or moved out of state.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the decision.

“The plaintiffs did not allege that the state failed to make an accommodation for their disability in deciding whether to issue a license,” his office said Tuesday press release. “Instead, they alleged that federal law compelled the state to use its regulatory powers to ensure that private businesses are complying with their obligations under federal law.”

Abby Frank, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represented the deaf students, said she believes the case was  “wrongly decided.”

But because the justices did not rule on case’s merits, she added:  “We are pleased that the Supreme Court has cleared the way for new plaintiffs to seek accommodations for driver education under the Americans with Disabilities Act without negative precedent standing in their way.”

The plaintiffs, who hail from Austin, Dallas, Plano, Midland and Arlington, say their requests for sign-language interpreters from several Texas driver's education schools were denied. They also asked the TEA to provide accommodations, but the agency did not oblige.

They argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act requires Texas to ensure that a mandatory state program, such as driver's education courses, is accessible to the disabled.

Title II of the ADA, which applies to public entities, mandates that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity.” Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act includes similar language, prohibiting discrimination of the disabled in any “program or activity” receiving federal funding.

But the phrase “services, programs, or activities” is not precisely defined, and its meaning cuts to the heart of the deaf students' case.

Read more of our related coverage:

  • In June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of five driver's education students who say that because Texas requires the classes, it should make sure there are interpreters for deaf students.
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