Blind World Magazine

Agencies to help the blind are accused of discrimination against the blind.

January 2, 2006.
Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Could it possibly be true? Has the state of Nevada discriminated against two of its blind employees? Specifically, the Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation and the Bureau of Services to the Blind, agencies that are supposed to help the blind, are under fire in two federal lawsuits.

Both cases have passed the first hurdle. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave two former employees right-to-sue letters. The cases filed by separate attorneys on behalf of separate clients haven't been resolved, so at this point the allegations are unproven, but the claims are a human resources director's nightmare.

The case furthest along in the system is scheduled for a Jan. 12 settlement conference before a federal magistrate. It was filed by Las Vegan Mae Courson-Long in June. She had worked as a rehabilitation counselor for 10 years at the Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation before she was discharged in November 2003. A woman in her 40s, she wants to keep working but needs some accommodations such as a reader who can help her with the job.

Her Utah attorney, Richard Armknecht, said there aren't a lot of jobs for her outside the Employment Training Department. "They're pretty much the only game in town as far as the kind of work she does." Armknecht contends

"there's a concerted effort to remove blind people" from the department. Ah, but can he prove it?

When he sued, he named the state, the department and Howard Castle, deputy chief of the department, who is based in Las Vegas.

In the second case, Las Vegan Ronald Bussen sued the state, Castle and the Bureau of Services to the Blind in November, claiming the bureau discriminates against the blind.

Bussen, blind since birth, was a Blind Services client in 2001 and at the end of 2002 was hired to work there. He worked at the bureau for not quite one year before he was fired.

His attorney alleged Bussen was harassed and discriminated against because he was blind and protested the bureau's practices.

One example alleged Blind Services didn't provide him materials in Braille and denied him computer access. Another claim: When off-site training meetings were held, Blind Services didn't provide Bussen a way to get there.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided the bureau discriminated against Bussen by not accommodating his disability. His file has been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice for consideration, said his Las Vegas attorney, Kathy England.

Nicole Moon, spokeswoman for the Nevada attorney general's office, which defends the state, said that "they are two very distinct cases" and that two cases do not constitute a trend.

The state is trying to get the Courson-Long case dismissed on the basis that she filed outside the statute of limitations and that her own doctor had said she was permanently disabled and unable to work. Courson-Long argued she could work if the department would accommodate her needs.

However, if her case goes forward, the state will have to address comments supposedly made by department supervisors that on paper read quite harsh.

One supervisor is quoted as saying (but may dispute saying): *"You use your blindness as a crutch to get out of doing work tasks."

*"Your helplessness is a ploy so that you can avoid being a team player." Courson-Long also alleges that another state boss told her to "grow up and quit creating problems using your blindness."

If the statements are proved true, the state employees who made them appear calloused at the least.

But the most incredible allegations Courson-Long makes is that in 2000 she opened her home to a co-worker going through a divorce, and the woman secretly reported back to supervisor Rob Johnston personal information about the blind woman, including the type of medication she uses and her medical appointments. Courson-Long alleges the woman admitted it and said Johnston asked her to report to him about the blind employee.

Again, if true, here's a boss telling one employee to spy on another and report back. Now that's human resources at its worst.

These cases might have no merit, or they might shine a light on abominable employment practices by the state against some of its most vulnerable workers, the blind. But they're worth watching.

Jane Ann Morrison's column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at

or call 383-0275.

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