Check out this incredibly disturbing story of four blind and visually impaired employees who lost their jobs due in large part to the purchasing and implementation of inaccessible technology without consideration of our needs. It seems the VA Medical Center decided it might be appropriate and acceptable to simply throw away these people like yesterday’s newspaper. In many cases, we are the only ones who will suffer consequences. I hope the Federation’s lawsuit is successful, the medical center pays for their wrongdoing and valuable lessons are learned about making sure the technology required on the job is made reasonably accessible.

Louisville Courier-Journal, KY, USA
Sunday, October 08, 2006

Vision-impaired workers sue over job loss

By Patrick Howington

Four released from VA Medical Center

Lonnie Swafford, who is legally blind, was a switchboard operator at the VA Medical Center in Louisville for more than three years. But that ended last fall when the Department of Veterans Affairs decided it shouldn’t rely on blind people for the job.

That was discrimination, Swafford and three other operators who lost their jobs contend in a recent lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson. The change of workers was triggered by the medical center’s switch last year to a different alarm system. The VA said the new system required that switchboard operators, who monitor alarms and issue alerts to hospital personnel, have good vision. The lawsuit says the VA could have altered the system so that vision-impaired people could monitor alarms more effectively, but chose not to.

Even without such adaptations, legally blind operators manned the new system for several months with no problems before they were let go, said Swafford, 25. “All of us had been in this job with no problems for years,” he said. “I feel angered. I feel like we were excluded just because of our visual impairment.” “I was still able to function and do my job,” said Charla Shown, another former VA operator. Because she is totally blind she didn’t monitor the screens, but performed other functions such as issuing alerts.

Shown, 52, said she lost her apartment because she couldn’t pay the rent after losing her job. She moved in with a daughter, while her 18-year-old son who had lived with her moved in with his older brother. “It’s a big change, not having your own place. But we have to do what we gotta do.”

Shown, Swafford and other blind operators were replaced by people with other disabilities, under a government program to provide such employment opportunities. The VA Medical Center and the Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment because the litigation is pending. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Louisville by an attorney for the National Federation for the Blind. It has five plaintiffs — the four former operators and another man who kept his position but claims he was denied a promotion because of poor vision. The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t yet submitted a response to the complaint, which was filed Aug. 14. That’s because the department hasn’t been served with a copy of the complaint, a spokesman said.

Swafford and the other former operators were employed by Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind, which had a contract to provide switchboard operators for the center, 800 Zorn Ave. The nonprofit North Carolina agency is associated with National Industries for the Blind. Under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act, federal agencies must purchase some services from nonprofit organizations that employ blind or disabled people, including agencies in National Industries for the Blind’s network. In addition to working the phone system at the medical center, Raleigh’s operators monitored alarm systems that detected fires, patient emergencies and other problems. That involved reading text messages on screens at their desks. Swafford said he and two other legally blind operators could see well enough to do that, sometimes using magnifiers.

“They were good employees,” said Janet Griffey, president and chief executive of Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind. “I even offered jobs to them here in Raleigh.” But in spring 2005 the center installed a new fire and security alarm system, Swafford said. Instead of a screen at a desk, it displayed messages on a wall panel, he said. Swafford, who has 20/600 vision in one eye and none in the other, said he could read the panel, but had to walk across the room to do so. He said two other former operators had better sight than he does.

Swafford said the three were able to use the new system, but the VA didn’t give them a chance to prove it. When the contract with Raleigh came up for renewal, the VA specified that one operator on each shift must have 20/70 vision or better, the lawsuit says. That effectively kept blind operators from working the evening and overnight shifts, since only one operator works then, the lawsuit says.

Raleigh lost the contract last fall to Employment Source, a Fayetteville, N.C., agency that employs workers with disabilities — but with sight. Employment Source is affiliated with NISH, formerly called National Industries for the Severely Handicapped. Employment Source’s president declined to be interviewed.

Swafford and Cathy Jackson, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky, said the VA could have adapted the new alarm system for vision-impaired employees. Technology exists to translate written alarms into spoken ones, Swafford said. The National Federation of the Blind has a department that researches such adaptations, Jackson said. “They chose not to ask anyone who is blind, who works with the blind, any of these questions,” Jackson said. “They just said it couldn’t be done, and that was that.”

“I understand where the VA was coming from, to a degree, as far as it being a safety concern,” Swafford said. But in their months of monitoring alarms under the new system, the blind operators “demonstrated that we were able to do it.” The lawsuit seeks to recover lost wages and benefits and other damages.

Swafford now works at a Citigroup call center in eastern Jefferson County. He said he earns less money, but has better benefits. He bought his Clifton-area house so he could walk to his job at the medical center, Swafford said. Now he rides the bus or with a co-worker. “I got a feeling of satisfaction with helping the veterans,” Swafford said. “To be honest, it may have been a better move in the long run, to go to where I am now. But still, it doesn’t justify what happened.”

Reporter Patrick Howington can be reached at (502) 582-4229.