Countless students with disabilities are enrolled in private schools, most of which are religious. One such student, James Zobrest, was the subject of a United States Supreme Court case testing the constitutionality of a publicly-funded sign language interpreter at the Catholic high school in which James was enrolled. That case examined the rights and obligations of public schools; this Article focuses on private religious schools and examines their obligations to students with disabilities such as James Zobrest. Private schools are commonly regulated by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits disability discrimination and requires private schools to make “minor adjustments” to their programs for students with disabilities. While providing a personal sign language interpreter to James Zobrest would be more than a required “minor adjustment” for a private school, the term is undefined and largely uninterpreted. This Article examines obligations private schools owe to their students with disabilities and attempts to provide guidance on “minor adjustments.”
Part II of this Article provides a brief overview of the relevant federal statutes. The federal special education statute (the IDEA), applies to public schools and not to private schools. It requires public schools to identify and evaluate eligible students, including students enrolled in private schools like James Zobrest. It does not, however, give private school students any individual rights to any services from the public school. So, it is actually quite likely that a public school would not agree to provide a sign language interpreter to James Zobrest as a private school student. In this event, James’s family might look to the private school for this and other services.