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Theater group violated disabilities act

Refused to make accommodations for 11-year-old who has severe peanut, tree nut allergies

  • Atticus Belmonte, who plays Chorus/Prince and Potpan in the upcoming Young Shakespeare Players’ production of Romeo and Juliet, rehearses a scene at the Shea theater in Turners Falls in May. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt



For the Gazette
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

TURNERS FALLS — A local youth theater company has violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to make accommodations for an 11-year-old Amherst boy who suffers from severe peanut and tree-nut allergies, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

If the company, a local chapter of the Wisconsin-based Young Shakespeare Players headquartered in the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, fails to heed the department’s recommendations to make accommodations for the student, Mason Wicks-Lim, it could face a federal lawsuit, a letter of finding issued Friday states.

The letter says Young Shakespeare Players East violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make “reasonable accommodations” for Wicks-Lim that would “not have been unduly burdensome” to the program.

Federal authorities also said the program also violated the law by retaliating against another child who voiced her concerns about the situation and by threatening to close the program entirely if required to make the accommodations — a statement considered coercive under the act.

The department will require the program to:

Implement a disability nondiscrimination policy and publicize it to all families of current and former students.

Reimburse Wicks-Lim’s and Trinity “Sam” Picone-Louro’s legal fees in exchange for a written release of all claims against the program related to the case.

Appropriately train the program’s staff on its obligations under the ADA.

Life-threatening allergy

Wicks-Lim attempted to enroll in the program last spring, according to a complaint filed with the department. He suffers from a severe, life-threatening peanut and tree-nut allergy and always carries an epinephrine pen  to be administered in an emergency.

During the process of enrolling her son, Wicks-Lim’s mother, Ali Wicks-Lim, asked the group’s director, Suzanne Rubenstein, to make accommodations for her son, including administering medication in an emergency and keeping the program “nut-free.”

Rubenstein, according to the letter, agreed to try to keep nuts out, but could not guarantee that students would not bring in snacks that contained them.

She repeatedly declined to become trained to administer the EpiPen, according to the letter and complaint, and advised Wicks-Lim against enrolling her son in the program, because “he could expect to be consistently excluded.”

Rubenstein eventually agreed to learn to use the medication, but asked Wicks-Lim to sign a liability waiver and noted students may be left alone for long periods of time, according to the letter.

Wicks-Lim declined to sign, saying it would be dangerous, and informed Rubenstein that the company was legally required to offer the accommodations. Rubenstein said she’d rather close the program entirely than comply, the letter said.

Wicks-Lim eventually decided against enrolling her son.

Friend’s response

Meanwhile, a friend of Wicks-Lim’s, Trinity “Sam” Picone-Louro, 12, of Wendell, who had learned of her friend’s exclusion, wrote a letter to Rubenstein expressing disappointment with her decision and accusing the director of discrimination, according to the finding.

Rubenstein fired back at Picone-Louro, the complaint said, informing the child and her mother that they should consider finding a different program if they “cannot trust our decision or our motivations for making them,” and asking them to apologize to her and the program’s community.

The family refused, and Rubenstein kicked Picone-Louro out the program, the letter of finding said.

“The Letter of Finding serves as an unequivocal statement by the Department of Justice condemning not only the exclusion of kids with food allergies, but retaliation against those who advocate on their behalf,” wrote Mary Vargas, Wicks-Lim’s lawyer, in a statement.

“It costs nothing to include a child with a food allergy just like it costs nothing to refrain from retaliating against young people who have the courage to stand up for the rights of a friend,” Vargas continued. “It matters little if children are learning to quote Shakespeare if they are also being taught that some members of their community are not worth including.”

Reached Tuesday, Rubenstein referred questions to her attorney, Frank DiPrima. Messages left at his office were not immediately returned.

Young Shakespeare Players is a nonprofit theater program founded in 1980 that teaches young people to perform full-length, original works of William Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw and Charles Dickens, according to its website.

The website also notes that it “fosters a culture of inclusiveness and collaboration — not competition.”