ASAN Files ADA Complaint on Communication Access in Schools

Lady Justice with scales

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA– As part of its new communication rights initiative, Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has filed a groundbreaking complaint with the Department of Justice, seeking communication supports for five non-speaking autistic students in Arlington, Virginia. The Arlington Public Schools system (APS) has repeatedly denied these students’ requests to use the form of communication that works for them: spelling words by pointing to letters on a letter-board held by a trained supporter. These students are only a few of the many non-speaking Autistic students who have been denied access to the communication supports that enable them to communicate what they know and who have been placed in segregated settings because their schools and universities have presumed they cannot learn. ASAN’s communication rights initiative aims to remedy this injustice for all non-speaking autistic people, regardless of their primary form of communication.

The adult students, Huan Vuong, Emma Budway, and A.S., are tireless advocates for their right to an education. They have presented at conferences and hearings about the substandard education they have received and their desire to gain one that is equal to that of all other students. These students and ASAN believe that they could achieve academic success in mainstream classrooms if APS provided them with the support and auxiliary services they need in mainstream classrooms.

“Not having reliable speech should not remove my right to learn. I am a citizen, an American, and an eager learner. I want the same access to education as every other public school student,” Mr. Vuong said in December at a conference held by TASH, a developmental disability advocacy organization.

“One thing I want you to know is there are so many out there like me,” Ms. Budway said at the same conference. “Nonspeaking autistics like me that want you to know how much they want to learn. I am asking on behalf of those who do not have a voice to hear our plea to teach us.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), no person may be discriminated against by any public service or denied the full benefit of the service because that person has a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act specifically requires that public services, such as public schools, provide access to “effective communication,” which can include sign language interpreters or augmentative and alternative communication supports (AAC). Despite the law, non-speaking autistic students in Arlington and elsewhere have historically been denied these supports. As a result, they have been denied access to the general education curriculum and put on alternative educational tracks. These alternative tracks typically focus on behavior and rudimentary skills rather than on finding an effective way for students to show their academic proficiency and strong desire to learn.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Supreme Court precedent also guarantee students the right to access a grade-level curriculum in mainstream classrooms, wherever possible. Instead, these students were each placed in autism-specific, segregated classrooms solely because they have not been able to convey what they have learned without access to the only form of communication that works for them.

“As far as we know, this is one of the first effective communication complaints on behalf of non-speaking autistic students,” said Samantha Crane, ASAN’s Legal Director, who is representing the students. “Our goal is to get the Department of Justice to recognize how important effective communication is to autistic students, which will make it easier for students to defend their rights in the future.”

Complaints to the Department of Justice are one of many ways that students can enforce their rights under the ADA. If the Department of Justice believes that the law has been violated, it may take action to safeguard the rights of the students involved, including mediation or writing an official letter finding that the school system has violated the ADA.

ASAN filed this Complaint as part of its Communication Rights Initiative, which is an effort by its Legal and Public Policy Team to advocate for the right of non-speaking and partially non-speaking students to receive the same opportunities to learn and communicate as all other students. Because the Complaint has the potential to benefit a wide range of autistic students, ASAN is representing the complainants free of charge.

For further information on the case or the Communication Rights Initiative, contact Samantha Crane at To donate to the Communication Rights Initiative, click here. ASAN will receive a matching gift on the first $5,000 in donations to the Initiative. The full complaint is available here


About the Autistic Self Advocacy Network: The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a national, private, nonprofit organization, run by and for individuals on the autism spectrum. ASAN provides public education and promotes public policies that benefit autistic individuals and others with developmental or other disabilities. Its advocacy activities include combating stigma, discrimination, and violence against autistic people and others with disabilities; promoting access to employment, health care and long-term supports in integrated community settings; and educating the public about the access needs of autistic people. ASAN takes a strong interest in cases that affect the rights of autistic individuals to participate fully in community life and enjoy the same rights as others without disabilities.