A federal judge has ordered the Franklin Institute to stop discriminating against disabled patrons by making personal-care attendants pay entrance fees.
The court order follows a 2013 lawsuit alleging that the nonprofit museum’s policies prevented some disabled people from enjoying all the institute has to offer by charging their caretakers for the price of admission.
Lead plaintiff Michael Anderson has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair with the help of a full-time personal attendant. His attendant was charged at the door and for special offerings at the institute.
For instance, when Anderson tried to attend an Imax screening, he was told that his attendant must buy a ticket, a position that attorneys for the institute defended in federal court for more than two years. They have argued that waiving the fee could, eventually, cause the nonprofit to run a deficit and even trigger layoffs.
“The illogic of the institute’s position is as striking as its hyperbole,” wrote U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh Jr.
McHugh wrote that he’s “frankly puzzled” that the Franklin Institute would resist following the law — the Americans with Disabilities Act — because it could dampen ticket sales.
“To credit such a theory would not only render the ADA meaningless, but endorse a result inimical to its purposes,” he wrote.
According to institute attorneys, personal-care attendants are no longer charged the $19.95 cost of general admission. However in filings, they contend the institute cannot extend the policy to Imax screenings and other special exhibits that have limited seating.
Now, the institute is under a court order to change that.
The institute provides personal-care attendants with a folding chair to sit in an upper section dedicated to wheelchair seating for Imax screenings. Arguing that waiving the folding chair cost is hurting the museum’s revenue is “nonsensical,” the judge wrote, since those seats are not available to the general public.
The institute does not keep records on how many people with disabilities are accompanied by personal-care attendants, making the financial impact of waiving the folding chair fee difficult to quantify. Furthermore, the majority of Imax and special exhibits never even reach 50 percent capacity, McHugh wrote.
“No reasonable fact-finder could conclude that an occasional $1 loss to a $135 million organization constitutes an unreasonable cost or an undue financial burden,” the judge wrote.
In a statement, the Franklin Institute said it has a long history of serving the disabled community through education and outreach programs.
“We strongly disagree with the decision,” said spokeswoman Stefanie Santo, saying the institute will now “explore all of our options.”
The Miami-based attorneys representing the institute never returned calls seeking comment.
Attorney Stephen Gold, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said without caretakers, many severely disabled people in the Philadelphia area cannot partake in the region’s cultural offerings.
“We hope that museums and other institutions throughout the country will modify their policies to conform to the ADA,” he wrote in a statement.