By Minh N. Vu

A recent case decided by a federal court in Maryland illustrates the challenge that businesses sometimes face in having to make on-the-spot decisions about whether it is safe to allow a person with a disability to engage in an activity.  The activity at issue was paintball.  A paintball park operator refused to allow a group of blind individuals to play because of concerns that the blind players would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of the other players.  After a bench trial, the court concluded that the decision was reasonable and did not violate the ADA. The Court stressed that the reasonableness analysis must take into account the fact that the operator had to make an on-the spot decision.

What may come as surprise to some readers is that the court first made clear that blind individuals who have received adequate mobility training can play paintball just as safely as many sighted participants.  However, in this case, the blind players arrived late, precluding the operator from meaningfully assessing whether allowing them to play would constitute a direct threat.  In addition, the operator observed one plaintiff nearly walking into a post and another nearly walking off a deck.  The court stated that the operator had to make an “on-the spot, extemporaneous determination” about whether allowing the plaintiffs to play would create direct threat and the decision was reasonable under these circumstances.  The court stressed, however, that a policy of never allowing blind people to play paintball could violate the ADA.