, New York USA
Friday, April 27, 2007

Finally, somebody listened

By James T. Mulder, Staff writer

Therese Fredette receives her utility bill and her bank statement in
Braille, the system of raised letters she reads with her fingers.

At many restaurants, she can order from menus written in Braille.

But the North Syracuse woman, blind since birth, could not read her annual
12-page recertification letter from Medicaid, the state's major health
program for the blind and disabled, because it came in standard print.

She asked the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, which
administers Medicaid locally, to send her the letter in Braille. County
officials refused, but offered to have someone read the letter to her over
the phone or in person. That proposal didn't sit well with Fredette, who
likes to do things for herself.

"The less people help me, the better," Fredette said. "I believe my mail and
everything is private."

She turned for help to the Disability Rights Clinic at Syracuse University's
College of Law. Law students Koert Wehberg and Carrie Auringer worked out a
compromise on Fredette's behalf with the state Health Department, which
oversees Medicaid.

While state officials rejected the request for Braille, they recently agreed
to provide the information to Fredette on an audiocassette. Wehberg and
Auringer said it took them 18 months to

cut through the government bureaucracy to get Fredette the accommodation she
is entitled to under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"We find it ironic that private businesses such as banks and National Grid
provide people with information in Braille, but our own government, where we
pay taxes, does not provide people with accessible information so they can
be independent," said Wehberg, who also is blind.

Wehbergand Auringer consider Medicaid's agreement to accommodate Fredette a
victory for visually impaired people. They said it is important for people
with disabilities to know they can ask for accommodations from the county
Department of Social Services and the state Health Department, the two
agencies that run Medicaid.

Zach Karmen, Onondaga County's chief welfare attorney, said the county
Department of Social Services often receives requests to accommodate people
with physical and mental disabilities or limited language proficiency.

"Ideally what we like is for the case worker to make the accommodation right
on the fly," he said. "They just use common sense."

Karmen said Fredette's case was the first time the department received a
request for Braille correspondence. He said the county could not provide the
information in Braille because the Medicaid letters are sent directly by the

After the law students negotiated the compromise with the state, the county
made the recording by taping one of its employees reading Fredette's letter
aloud, according to Karmen.

"To be honest, that didn't make too much sense to me," he said. "I thought
it would make much more sense to have someone read it to her and help her
fill out the form."

That was unacceptable because it would not let Fredette review the
information more than once to make sure she understood it, the same way a
sighted person would when reading and rereading a printed letter, Wehberg
said. It also would have compromised her privacy, he said.

The state Health Department was contacted by the law students in November
and resolved the case in three months, according to Claire Pospisil, a
department spokeswoman.

She said the request should have been resolved at the county level.

Wehberg said a Health Department official told him the agency did not want
to provide Fredette her recertification letter in Braille because it would
set a precedent.

The Americanswith Disabilities Act says that as long as the accommodation is
considered reasonable, it does not have to be exactly what the individual
requested, according to Pospisil. Under the law, an audio recording is
considered a reasonable accommodation. "She was offered and accepted the
accommodation of an audiocassette of the recertification letter's contents,"
she said.

The Health Department may have opted for an audiocassette instead of Braille
because the cassette is accessible not only to Fredette, but to anyone else
she may want to share the information with, such as an attorney, Pospisil

About 10 million Americans are totally or partially blind. In Central New
York, there are more than 5,800, according to an estimate by Aurora of
Central New York, an agency that serves people with hearing and vision loss.

Federal disability laws such as the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act require
that blind and visually impaired individuals receive communications in an
alternative format.

Many privatecompanies accommodate the blind because they understand it's not
only a legal obligation, but good business, said Silvia Yee, a staff
attorney with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, a national
civil rights and policy group.

Government agencies, however, often are slow to abide by these laws, Yee
said. Her organization is representing some blind Social Security
Administration beneficiaries suing the federal agency for not providing them
with alternatives to standard print.

"If you cannot communicate with the agency or the agency refuses to
communicate with you in a way you can understand, you are denied
participation," Yee said. "These bureaucracies have a lot of inertia to
overcome in thinking of systemwide solutions and creative changes."

Persistent individuals like Fredette who file complaints are sometimes
successful in getting accommodations, according to Yee.

"But it's very hard to get systemic change so that all people with visual
disabilities, including seniors who need large fonts, are able to get the
communication they need to effectively participate in the system."

James T. Mulder can be reached at 470-2245 or