Family sues youth football association alleging lack of accommodation for deaf sons

A Fridley couple has filed a federal lawsuit against their local youth football association alleging discrimination because club leaders didn't allow a special drum at games for their two deaf boys.

David and Gloria Nathanson, who also are deaf, said their sons, identified in the lawsuit as D.N. and G.N., were 8 and 6 years old when they played tackle and flag football with the Spring Lake Park Panther Youth Football Association during the 2014 season.

The family is used to lugging their own bass drum to football practices and games. The drum's vibrations allowed the boys to sense when the ball is snapped and play starts.

But the youth football association says the drum helped opposing teams react faster, so the group stopped allowing it.

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The family filed the lawsuit earlier this month against the volunteer-run, nonprofit association and its top four leaders individually. The Nathansons allege violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

"The hearing kids know when the snap is starting, the hearing kids can hear the coach when the coach is giving a play," said Heather Gilbert, the Nathanson's attorney. "When there is a huddle, the hearing kids are able to talk with the coach and discuss the strategy."

But according to the lawsuit, originally filed in Anoka County and moved to U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, the SLPPYFA repeatedly denied the Nathansons' requests for American Sign Language interpreters at parent meetings and some of the games in addition to disallowing the drum.

The Nathansons have been participating in youth football since 2011 when Blaine and Spring Lake Park were a combined entity.

The combined youth football association previously paid for ASL interpreters before the split in 2014. It also allowed the drum use.

The boys were given sign language interpreters paid by the Lions Club for the 2014 season games.

The youth football association says it's not obligated to provide interpreters for parent meetings, practices or games under the ADA law because of its small budget.

SLPPYFA president Phil Richard estimates it costs more than $7,000 per season for an interpreter. The association's budget is $40,000 and there is less than $4,000 left in the SLPPYFA bank account this year.

"Our money can't go to one kid," Richard said. "We want to invest in safety and kids' helmets and shoulder pads to keep kids playing football."

Richard said he coached the older Nathanson boy for three seasons. He allowed the drum back then at the flag football level.

The coaches and board decided to stop using it in 2014 when Nathanson went on to third-grade tackle football, a more competitive level.

"The other teams were starting to key on the drum and the drum beater, if you will, to signify when they could go versus listening to the quarterback," Richard said. "It became disruptive for the team that had the deaf kid on it."

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 "prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation," according to the law.

Minnesota Disability Center attorney Rick MacPherson said the law also applies to nonprofit organizations that provide benefits to the community.

MacPherson represents a deaf couple who sued the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities last summer when the Hastings location didn't provide sign language interpreters at their daughter's swimming lessons.

The case hasn't been settled, but the Y is negotiating with the couple and attempting to change its policies, MacPherson said.

Even if the ADA law applies to public, private and nonprofit organizations, MacPherson noted a case may get dismissed based on small assets and incomes.

But he said the idea behind the law is that the cost of interpreters should be treated like any other operational cost that "may only add a small amount to the registration fee."

Attorney Gilbert said the family is after compensatory damages, attorney fees, as well as policy changes.

"Without a sign language interpreter there, both little boys aren't able to know what the coaches are saying," she said. "They're not able to participate in the same way that the hearing kids can participate."