Braille Monitor                                                    April 2009

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Jury Finds Iowa Department for the Blind’s Guide Dog Policy Does Not Discriminate

From the Editor: The Iowa Attorney General’s office circulated the following press release on February 19, 2009. Stephanie Dohmen has been attempting to sue the Iowa Department for the Blind for years because she was not permitted to use her guide dog while a student at the Department’s adult training and adjustment center. She had argued that the consumer choice provisions of the Rehabilitation Act as amended in 1998 allowed her to use her dog instead of the long white cane that is part of the instructional program of the adult training center.

Even though a jury has now found in favor of the Department for the Blind, it is conceivable that Ms. Dohmen and her advocates could appeal this decision as they have done from court to court for the last six years. But this time their arguments would have to be based on errors in this trial, a much more technical argument than they have had to make until now. In any case, here is the press release announcing the jury verdict:

Des Moines--A Polk County jury has rejected a Des Moines woman’s claim that the State of Iowa Department for the Blind discriminated against her by refusing her request to use a guide dog while she attended the Department’s orientation and adjustment training program.

The Department for the Blind orientation and training program is a comprehensive program that uses a totally nonvisual approach to teaching blindness skills. Students with partial vision are required to wear sleepshades to prevent reliance upon any visual cues during training. Department policies prohibit the use of any visual aids within the orientation and training program, including guide dogs. The Department has no objection to guide dogs in other situations.

Stephanie Dohmen, who is legally blind, attended the program for several months beginning in September 2000 and sought to re-enter the program in June 2002 accompanied by her guide dog. Dohmen claimed in her lawsuit that the Department’s policy violated her rights under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and under federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. After a six-day trial, the eight-person jury rejected Dohmen’s claims in a verdict entered Wednesday.

The Department for the Blind, which was represented in the trial by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, argued that a totally nonvisual approach–and training without assistance of a guide dog or other visual aids–is the most effective approach for visually impaired persons who are learning skills and techniques for dealing with blindness.

The Department places no limitations upon the use of guide dogs in other settings, including in the Department for the Blind building in downtown Des Moines. For example, Karen Keninger, the director of the Department, uses a guide dog, and the dog accompanied Keninger during her testimony at the trial.

The orientation program typically includes about six months of full-time training in various problem-solving skills, such as cane travel on public streets, using Braille, using computers, and dealing with many other situations. The Department for the Blind’s orientation and adjustment program was established in 1959 and is considered by many to be one of the most effective in the country.

During the trial the State Department for the Blind presented testimony from Joanne Wilson and Fredric K. Schroeder, each a former commissioner of the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration, which oversees programs for the blind around the country.

“Iowa’s orientation program profoundly changes lives,” said Wilson, who is also executive director of Affiliate Action of the National Federation of the Blind. “It works. It’s a cutting-edge program and a model for other states.” Wilson is a Webster City native and ISU graduate, who went through the Iowa Department for the Blind’s orientation program herself.

Schroeder said: “To me the central point is that individuals have a choice in the type of training they take. While programs must and should make reasonable accommodations, they cannot be required to alter the fundamentals of the program.”


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