A seventh-grader in Massachusetts this month won the right to send a robot to class in his stead to interact with teachers and classmates, as technology pushes the boundaries of accommodations schools must provide to disabled students.
After a four-year battle, the Hudson Public Schools District agreed to let 13-year-old Keegan Concannon, who has an immunodeficiency disorder and makes it to class less than half the time, use his robot as part of a settlement under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
His mother, Laura, said it shouldn’t have taken a massive public pressure campaign and a change in the school system to win Keegan virtual classroom rights.
“The town of Hudson — when they heard about Keegan’s story — they were floored,” Ms. Concannon said. “Keegan’s fight was that no other child would have to go through what he had to go through since he’s been in school missing all the fun activities.”
It’s a fight those involved with robot-classroom technology say is playing out in school systems across the country. Some have been quick to embrace the technology, but others have been resistant.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a public entity, such as a school, must make reasonable modifications for people who have disabilities to avoid discrimination unless the entity can show the modifications would impair its activity in some way or could be too costly. Typically, if the recommend modification doesn’t work, the entity — or school — could suggest an alternative solution.
Through third grade, Keegan used Skype to keep up with his classroom when he couldn’t be there in person. But, by fourth grade, his school said it was a distraction.
So he was given the auxiliary robot, free of charge, by Grahamtastic Connection, an organization that helps connect children who have illnesses with the internet for education.
But the Hudson schools superintendent at the time ruled the robot was also a distraction and suggested private tutors be sent to Keegan’s home instead.
That solution didn’t sit well with his family.
“This is the critical time for a child, especially any teenage boy or girl with social networking and emotional well-being,” Mrs. Concannon said, pushing for Keegan to interact with other students and avoid isolation.
Thus began Mrs. Concannon’s public battle with the school system — a fight the local U.S. attorney took an interest in.
A big break came in 2017 when Hudson got a new superintendent who seemed open to the robot.
Both the pressure from above and the change in leadership helped spur this month’s settlement, which saw the school district admit it didn’t prove a robot would be disruptive or burdensome. The school system agreed to admit Keegan’s robot, and the U.S. attorney’s office said it wouldn’t pursue a disability investigation — though it does plan to watch the school system’s compliance.
Ms. Concannon says her fight has left her determined to make sure other students know their rights. She is planning meetings with lawmakers and the federal Education and Health departments to try to get mandatory policies on robot access for children who are in situations like Keegan’s.
For many school systems, common ADA issues center on hearing or vision impairments, and solutions involve modified computers, audio texts, or interpreters or readers.
Robots are still a rarity — though legal scholars said the law should be able to accommodate them.
“As technology evolves and as more things come into availability, the ADA is flexible,” said Robert D. Dinerstein, director of the Disability Rights Law Clinic at American University.
Leslie Morissette, founder of Grahamtastic Connection, said Keegan’s story isn’t the first time she’s run into a school prohibiting the use of robots in the classroom.
“We are pleased, however, that currently there are 56 schools that have welcomed our robots for children battling cancer or other serious illnesses,” Ms. Morissette said.
Robots, she said, connect those students to the classroom in a way other technology can’t. And she said the school systems end up ahead, too.
“Schools are required to provide tutors when students are unable to attend school for extended periods of time due to illness. Therefore, schools also benefit because they can avoid the costs of providing tutors for these students,” she said.