Image of Debbie and Stuart Prost
Debbie and Stuart Prost

EEOC Charges Filed Against Virginia's So-called
Disability Rights Agency

by Charles Brown

From the Editor: Charlie Brown is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and a Member of the NFB Board of Directors. The following report is reprinted from the Winter, 1998, issue of the NFB Vigilant, a publication of the NFB of Virginia. Stuart Prost is a long-time member of the National Federation of the Blind. His wife Debbie was honored as the NFB's 1997 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children. She teaches in the Tidewater area of Virginia, where they live, so when employment transportation problems began to develop for Stuart, the Prosts did not have the option of moving in order to keep his job because Debbie would then have been faced with the same problem in reverse. Here is Charlie Brown's explanation of the situation:

The Department of Rights for Virginians with Disabilities (DRVD) is the one state agency charged with protecting the civil rights of disabled Virginians. Its mission is to see that blind people and other disabled folks get a fair shake in employment, education, government services, and the like. One would think that the DRVD would want to set an example in employing the disabled, but I'm afraid that's just not so.

On February 26, 1998, Federationist Stuart Prost filed formal discrimination charges with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the DRVD, alleging that he was illegally forced out of his job as a disability rights advocate with DRVD in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Prost had served the DRVD well for over ten years as an advocate in its former Virginia Beach office. Federationists will recall that we adopted a resolution at our last State Convention which vigorously criticized the DRVD for closing its Virginia Beach office, leaving the residents of Virginia's largest population area without a local office. The DRVD director, Sandy Reen, claimed she just had to close that office, but she did not close the DRVD offices in Richmond, Northern Virginia, and Fishersville. We were not the only ones to criticize Ms. Reen's arbitrary decision to cut services in the Hampton-Roads area; other disability groups, the media, and General Assembly members also complained, to no avail.

Mr. Prost was then ordered to report to the DRVD's Richmond Office. If he had been sighted, he would have had the option of driving up each day from his home in Portsmouth, as his former Virginia Beach Office co-worker decided to do. He checked into possible alternate transportation, but the schedules didn't work. Mr. Prost asked for some reasonable accommodation to his blindness, as called for in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since it was clear that disabled Hampton-Roads residents would have to be served from the Richmond Office, it was certain that Mr. Prost would have to spend much of his time back in that area anyway, visiting places like the Eastern State Hospital. To cut down on travel time and to make it possible for him to continue to work for the DRVD, Mr. Prost asked that he be allowed to do part of his job by telecommuting—tying his phone, computer, and fax machine through the main Richmond DRVD switchboard.

Today telecommuting is becoming commonplace, especially for those responsible for covering large geographic territories. Many businesses and government agencies use this approach effectively, including other Virginia State agencies. I certainly agreed with Mr. Prost that telecommuting would be reasonable accommodation in his case. I discussed this with Ms. Reen on more than one occasion over the phone and even went down to Richmond to meet with her about it. She was adamantly opposed to any such option, period, while offering no suggestions of her own. Frankly I was amazed at Ms. Reen's bureaucratic attitude. In any event, her failure to offer any reasonable accommodation to Mr. Prost's situation resulted in his forced resignation in January.

Filing a federal complaint was obviously a last resort for Mr. Prost. After all, he just wants to continue to work for DRVD. But at this point Mr. Prost and the Federation simply had no other choice.

When Sandy Reen took over at DRVD, she had our organization's full support and that of many others; but she has wasted this good will. During her tenure as DRVD director Ms. Reen has been criticized in the media for DRVD's failure to protect the rights of patients at Central State Hospital, a highly negative evaluation from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, the closing of the Virginia Beach Office, and more. Now Ms. Reen's unwillingness to provide reasonable accommodation to Mr. Prost as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act has forced out the DRVD's only blind employee. The Prost case is just one more embarrassment for this deeply troubled agency. This case is likely to be long and laborious, but when an agency charged with protecting the rights of disabled people engages in discrimination, what choice do we have but to fight?