Braille Monitor                                             August/September 2015

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Adjusting Attitudes: A Landmark Victory in the Iowa Supreme Court

by Aaron Cannon

From the Editor: Aaron Cannon is a software accessibility engineer who works for Instructor Inc. Many will remember his name because of the ongoing battle we have had with Palmer Chiropractic, which has decided that sight is an essential element if one is to be trained and licensed. Here is Aaron's story:

Aaron CannonThank you, President Riccobono. Twelve years ago I decided I wanted to be a chiropractor—well, I decided I wanted to go to Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, considered to be the top chiropractic college in the world. At the time I didn't think of this as a very risky goal. To be honest, I wasn't too worried about the academics—obviously it was going to be challenging—but what was even better from my perspective was that I wasn't going to be the first blind chiropractor to graduate from Palmer. Several had done so before me.

I was very open with Palmer about my blindness. It was on my admissions essay, and I reached out to their office for students with disabilities. Hearing nothing that would dissuade me, I was accepted, and in January of 2004 we moved to Davenport, Iowa (which I can't recommend—not because it's Iowa—I love Iowa—but it was January, and don't move to Iowa in January).

My wife and I moved there, and I started to take classes in preparation to enter the Doctor of Chiropractic program on the Palmer campus. Shortly after I began in March of that same year, I met with Lori Newman, the director of the office for students with disabilities. We had a few meetings over the next several months, but the gist of those meetings was her telling me that I was going to have a problem because Palmer had recently adopted technical standards and that one of the requirements of these technical standards was that students must possess a sufficient sense of vision. Well, I shared with her that my vision was quite sufficient for my needs [applause], that I had put a great deal of work into getting to where I was, and that I was fully capable of dealing with whatever challenges might arise. I said that I wasn't planning on going anywhere.

She proposed that maybe we better meet with the Disability Steering Committee to try to come to some sort of agreement. Now I generally like to think the best of people, so I'm sure that the reason that the meeting with the Disability Steering Committee didn't take place until almost a year after my meeting with Lori Newman wasn't because they were stalling, hoping I would just go away; I'm sure it was really hard for them to keep taking my money all those months. Fortunately, just a couple of short weeks before I entered the Doctor of Chiropractic program proper, the folks on the Disability Steering Committee found some time in their busy schedules, and we met. As I mentioned, the purpose of this meeting was ostensibly for us to discuss accommodations and to come up with some sort of plan that would be agreeable to everyone. Of course I, gullible as I was, thought I would just simply explain to them the techniques of blindness, how I'd done it throughout all of my schooling, how I would use a human reader and other adaptations, and everyone would go home happy. As you might imagine, that's not quite how it worked out.

When I tried to talk with them about the use of a reader, they were very quick to shut me down. They just didn't want to hear it. They claimed that would give me an unfair advantage. Now perhaps if the meeting had ended there, I might have believed that maybe we could just talk to them some more, maybe we could convince them, maybe they needed to be educated a little more. But the meeting did not end there, and after I had been given my token say—well, let me tell you folks the types of things that were said, and you can be the judge of the true character of the meeting and its purpose.

Paraphrasing now, they said to me: you sure are spending a lot of money, not to mention time, blood, sweat, tears. What are you going to do when you get to the fifth trimester and you hit a stopping point, and you just can't go any further? What are you going to do then? You have a young family to think about, a new baby, and, after all, they claimed that the technical standards were not negotiable because they had adopted them in order not to lose their accreditation. So, even if they had wanted to, they just couldn't accommodate me.

Well, as it turns out, we found out later that the accreditation standards that they are held to tell a much different story. The closest that the standards came to supporting their position was the requirement that students must be able to observe patients. According to Palmer College of Chiropractic, we who are blind lack the ability to observe. That's what they say, so I guess that means we should stop doing it. If we buy their proposition that accepting me as a student would have cost them their accreditation, it really begs the question of why the California campus of Palmer still has their accreditation. Let me explain. In California there is a law that states that a student who is otherwise qualified cannot be excluded from a chiropractic college in California on the basis of blindness. I know of at least two people who have graduated since this all began, and yet Palmer West still holds its accreditation.

I quickly discovered that the Disability Steering Committee was doing an excellent job of steering persons with disabilities away from the college. After that I kind of gave up on the committee as a lost cause, and it was with this major setback hanging over my head that I entered the Doctor of Chiropractic program in March of 2005.

As a last resort I took my cause to the president of the college. I wrote him a letter in which I pleaded with him to intervene on my behalf. All I wanted was a chance—a chance just to do what others had done before me, a chance to either stand or fall based on my own abilities and not based on the whims and dictates of some so-called Disability Steering Committee that knew nothing about blindness. I also urged the president of the college to reach out to the Iowa Department for the Blind to see if they might have anything to offer. Alas, it was all in vain. The letter I received back from the president appeared to have as its purpose telling me what Palmer thought it was obligated to do under the law. Apparently, in its view, it was not obligated to accommodate one Aaron Cannon. I wish I had time to share the whole letter with you because it really is quite ridiculous. In one paragraph the president of the college (if you actually believe he wrote the letter and didn't delegate it to one of Palmer's attorneys) quotes a finding of the Supreme Court, and then in the very next paragraph, without a trace of irony, he says, "The college does, however, welcome students with disabilities, and therefore I have asked Dr. Cunningham to contact the Iowa Department for the Blind to inquire ..."

Citations of legal doctrine to justify discrimination always make me feel especially welcome, don't they you? When I talked with my counselor at the Iowa Department for the Blind about how the meeting went, he told me that his impression was that Palmer didn't seem interested in finding a solution, and they also shut him down on the topic of using a reader; they just didn't want to hear it.

I received this news right around finals week, and, as you might imagine, I was quite discouraged to say the least. What I did next I'm really not that proud of, but I was just so disgusted with the whole thing that I left Palmer without taking my final exams. Looking back on it now, I really wish I hadn't done that, but I just couldn't see the point. It was such a difficult time for my wife and I—our first daughter was about four months old and our plans for the next three years or so had just gone up in smoke. I think I don't need to explain to most of you the pain of discrimination.

But, you know, I really didn't have a Plan B. I hadn't thought about other contingencies because, in spite of all the warning signs, I don't think I ever actually believed that we wouldn't be able to work something out. It just seemed so obvious to me—I wasn't trying to do something that hadn't been done before; it had only been a few short years since the last blind person had graduated from Palmer, and, as far as I knew, the curriculum hadn't changed in that time.

As an aside, I wasn't the only student to leave Palmer at that time. Another individual I knew there who had a hearing impairment left because Palmer was not accommodating him either.

After I left Palmer I filed a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. I didn't really expect it to go anywhere. After all, Palmer seemed to have the Supreme Court on its side, and what did I know? But the commission surprised me: it found probable cause of discrimination, and at that point I realized that I probably needed an attorney, and I reached out to the Federation.

I'm running a bit short on time, so I can't share all of the legal back and forth, but just as a broad summary, we engaged in a conciliation process with Palmer through the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. That went nowhere. An administrative law judge then found in our favor after holding a hearing. Palmer appealed that decision to district court, which found in their favor. We then appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court and it, in June of last year, found in our favor. [applause]

Throughout this process a few Federationists were kind enough to step in on my behalf. In particular I want to publicly thank Cary Supalo, Curtis Chong, and Duane Hudspath. I was initially represented by the extremely talented and very tenacious Peggy Elliott. [applause] When she suffered some very unfortunate family emergencies, she was no longer able to continue in that role. So then Scott LaBarre, a man who needs absolutely no introduction, stepped in and, as everybody knew he would, he did an outstanding job.

Now Duane Hudspath, who is a Palmer graduate, a successfully practicing chiropractor who also happens to be totally blind and a Federationist—I mentioned him earlier, but it was quite amusing to listen to Palmer argue about the differences between Duane and me. You see, according to Palmer, Duane is more qualified to understand a visual description because he lost his sight as a child, whereas I was born blind and so have no concept of those tricky visual concepts. According to Palmer, there are the blind and then there are the really blind.

So how does a blind chiropractor actually do his or her job in spite of Palmer's doubts? I don't think the answer is going to be too surprising to most people here. We use our sense of touch, hearing, other senses—our alternative techniques—to observe and treat our patients. Many, like their sighted colleagues, choose to hire chiropractic assistants and can use those folks to gather visual information. Many, like their sighted colleagues, choose to outsource their x-rays and other diagnostic tests. You know, the blind have been practicing chiropractic since 1918. We're still doing it today, and I don't think we’re about to give up doing it based on ignorance and bigotry.

What did the Iowa Supreme Court have to say about all this? Basically they said that it is not acceptable for an educational institution to simply point to an arbitrary technical standard when accommodating students. They must perform an individual extensive inquiry to seek out means of accommodating students with disabilities. As I interpret it, a college can't simply say, "Well, we just can't imagine how a blind person could interpret x-rays, so, because we lack imagination, you’re out of luck." My friends, my Federation family, thank you so much for your support during all of this. The Federation, as I'm sure you all know, does not seek out conflict. We don't fight because we want to. We do it because we must; we do it to protect our freedoms and our livelihoods and our children. Make no mistake: when we go to battle, we go to win. Thank you.

Giving a Dream

One of the great satisfactions in life is having the opportunity to assist others. Consider making a gift to the National Federation of the Blind to continue turning our dreams into reality. A gift to the NFB is not merely a donation to an organization; it provides resources that will directly ensure a brighter future for all blind people.

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The National Federation of the Blind has special giving opportunities that will benefit the giver as well as the NFB. Of course the largest benefit to the donor is the satisfaction of knowing that the gift is leaving a legacy of opportunity. However, gifts may be structured to provide more:

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Your gift makes you a partner in the NFB dream. For further information or assistance, contact the NFB planned giving officer.

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