Blind Woman Wins, But Wins What?

by Linda L. Rhinehart

From the editor: I received the preceding article several months ago and decided to include it in this month's issue. Then, a few days ago, I received the following piece from Linda Rhinehart. Although the case she describes was against an educational institution rather than an employer, it provided a heartbreaking illustration of Greg Trapp's point. Linda is a fairly new Federationist. She is a member of the Capital Chapter of the NFB of Pennsylvania, itself a new part of the Federation family. It is good to know that at least now Linda is receiving support and advice from Federationists. Here is her story:

I wrote this article about an event that has consumed my life for almost five years. I wanted to share it with my fellow Federationists in order to get a horrible event off my chest, perhaps to find others who have been through a similar experience, and to warn those who may face a similar problem in the future.

I have been blind for thirteen years as a result of a drunk driver's getting behind the wheel. I have learned to deal with bad treatment from some folks in society. In January, 1993, I entered York Technical Institute to receive an education and to earn a degree in specialized business/computerized accounting. Nothing prepared me for the events that were to follow. The very first day my instructors began making annoyed remarks about my talking equipment. They did not approve of my readers, and from that day until I graduated they made faces, called me names, and made my experience as difficult as possible. I worked my way through the entire chain of command and never once received resolution of my ongoing problems with the instructors. I was forced to sign a waiver stating that the school was not responsible for job placement assistance because of my physical disability. I finally concluded that my only recourse in the face of the bizarre treatment I received because of my blindness was to file a lawsuit. From start to finish this lawsuit took four-and-a-half years, a lot of paperwork, and a lot of visits to professionals to prove that I was blind. We also had to compute lost wages and the many other damages we were claiming in the suit. My attorney requested all this, and at great cost I supplied it. I grew increasingly aggravated because I continued to hear negative and derogatory remarks about blind people. The defense attorneys kept asking for continuances, and once a judge even lost my case file on his desk. In the end we were ordered to arbitration with a professional mediator from Philadelphia. As far as I could tell, she ran her courtroom fairly. She even requested my attorney to pay close attention to the closing portion of her briefing. This led me to believe we had presented our case well. By the way, I can assure everyone that legal deadlines mean nothing when you are the plaintiff. When I complained to my attorney that several steps in this case had gone past their deadlines, I was told there was nothing we could do.

So what was the final result—the result we had to demand after the mediator asked for an extension and exceeded the extension by two more days? Her final report was only one page long. It found on behalf of the plaintiff under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Board and under the fraud, discrimination, and breach of contract clauses. The damages awarded to me as the plaintiff were, and I quote, "No monetary damages awarded; defendant will offer plaintiff job placement assistance and re-education at any time in the future."

I cannot express my anger and pain at this decision except to say that I instantly went numb. I had prepared an ironclad case against the school at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars that I still owe and may never be able to completely repay because the only work I have been able to secure is in a sheltered workshop. I graduated from York Technical Institute with honors, and still they would not provide me the services offered as a matter of course to my non-disabled peers. The original contract stipulated that as an alumna I was to receive the services the arbitrator awarded me in the settlement. I find it appalling for an arbitrator to say that the defendant is guilty of all the charges, especially discrimination and belittlement, yet refuse to penalize the institution for such behavior. In other words, enforcing the original contract agreement is sufficient.

The message delivered by this case and this arbitrator is clear: institutions of higher education can belittle and discriminate against blind people and get away with it. I ask myself today whether or not this lawsuit was worth the time and money I have spent and will continue to spend on it. The answer is: not unless my story is told to warn others about our legal system and how it can sometimes fail us.

Because my case went to arbitration, I can never appeal it. I ask my fellow Federationists to write to me with similar situations, job leads, or suggestions about financial assistance. Write to Linda Rhinehart, 50 Saginaw Road, Mt. Wolf, Pennsylvania 17347. You may also call me at (717) 266-5877. We the members of the National Federation of the Blind must stop discrimination like this from taking place. We can only do it by working together.