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Young Shakespeare group settles peanut allergy complaint

  • Cast members in the upcoming Young Shakespeare Players' production of Romeo and Juliet, rehearse a scene at the Shea theater in Turners Falls. Recorder file photo


Monday, December 18, 2017

By DIANE BRONCACCIO

Recorder Staff

TURNERS FALLS — The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Young Shakespeare Players East children’s theater group reached a settlement Monday, resolving allegations that the theater company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing reasonable accommodations for a child with a severe peanut allergy.

Another part of the complaint was an allegation that another child was excluded from the program for advocating for the child with the allergy.

“Children with disabilities should be able to pursue their interests and participate in a full range of programs and activities,” said acting U.S. Attorney William D. Weinreb. “Whenever necessary, reasonable modifications under the ADA must be provided to ensure that all children can take advantage of educational opportunities. Enforcement of the ADA is an important priority of this office, and we applaud children and young adults who advocate for disability rights.”

In 2016, the Department of Justice found that company founder and Director Suzanne Rubenstein had violated the ADA by not making “reasonable” accommodations for Mason Wicks-Lim, then 11, of Amherst. Mason was enrolled in the youth theater program in Montague.

His mother, Ali Wicks-Lim, wanted assurances that adult staff present would administer an Epi-Pen if her son had an allergic reaction. Rubenstein agreed to have adult volunteers take instruction on how to use the Epi-Pen, but said the company could not guarantee that an adult would be present around Mason at all times. Therefore, his mother wouldn’t sign a waiver of liability, which is required by the group, and she filed a complaint in federal court.

“The DOJ’s finding that YSPE discriminated and now the settlement requiring that YSPE not discriminate and establishing ongoing monitoring of their operations by the United States are a vindication for the children,” said a statement sent by Wicks-Lim and her attorney, Mary Vargas. “However, that vindication of the right to inclusion came at a huge personal cost to our children and families.”

The settlement requires Young Shakespeare Players East to implement a non-discrimination policy in which reasonable modifications will be considered and provided to participants with disabilities. It also requires the theater group to conduct appropriate training for adult volunteers.

According to a statement from Rubinstein, the theater group “vigorously contests the allegations,” but is to “formally adopt policies with which it already complies” and meet some short-term reporting requirements.

“YSPE believes strongly in the values and principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Rubinstein. “I don’t know of another organization our size that has done more than YSPE to embody these values in real-life programs and performances. Inclusion is a fundamental part of who we are and what we do. Young actors with disabilities … have participated and performed in YSPE productions alongside their fellow cast members who do not have disabilities. ...I personally look upon the Settlement Agreement as a public affirmation of our support for the goals of the ADA,” she said.

The youth group’s attorney, Frank DiPrima, said that by settling, “This tiny organization avoids contesting a costly Department of Justice law suit in federal court about principles on which there is no fundamental disagreement. Now YSPE and the young actors it serves can continue their miraculous, life-enriching work without the distraction of an impending federal law suit.”

While disagreeing with the statements made by Rubinstein and DiPrima, Wicks-Lim and Vargas said, “We are relieved that the facts prevailed and that the DOJ is addressing YSPE's discriminatory practices. This is an excellent step in the right direction. In the meantime, both children involved in this case have received awards from national and local disability rights groups, for their work on behalf of people with disabilities. It is not easy work but all civil rights struggles are difficult for those who are actively fighting for inclusion.”

The Young Shakespeare Players was founded in Wisconsin in 1980, but has added a New England chapter, which is based at the Shea Theater. According to its website, Young Shakespeare Players East is a nonprofit organization with no paid staff and no overhead. It’s for youths, ages 8 to 18.