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Program cuts break the law, judge rules

Published Oct. 6, 2005

City leaders violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by eliminating recreation programs for the disabled, a federal judge has ruled in a precedent-setting case.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp said he could not find any similar cases under the 9-month-old law intended to put disabled people on an equal legal footing with others.

"It really is the first time the ADA has been used to protect against budget cuts," Jim Green, a lawyer representing 300 people served by the programs, said Friday.

Ryskamp ordered the city to immediately extend recreation programs to people with disabilities and present its plan for compliance within 15 days.

Sam Price, who handled the case for the city attorney's office, could not be reached for comment.

The judge rejected the city's argument that "the public purpose of fiscal integrity and maintaining a balanced budget outweighs the injury" to people served by the programs dropped last fall.

A wide assortment of programs had been attended by disabled people at the city's Dreher Park Center, including a children's day camp, lip reading instruction and Little League baseball.

Debbie Berris, whose disabled son attended the day camp, said she was overwhelmed by the decision.

"The programs were known by everyone, except the city officials themselves, as model programs," she said. "They are fantastic, and most of the parents have said they have absolutely no other place to turn."

The city cut its recreation department budget from $6.6-million to $5.9-million for the current fiscal year. All but $82,827 was dropped from the $384,560 budget for disabled services. The remaining funds covered one salary, utilities, maintenance and insurance, in effect eliminating all programs.