Editors' Introduction: The following four articles relate directly to the experiences of blind college students. They contain techniques for dealing with classes, provide information about participating in out-of-school activities and peek into the lives of a few students as they maneuver their college careers.
by Meleah H. Jensen
Editors' Introduction: Meleah H. Jensen is a graduate student at Louisiana Tech University where she is working on a masters in Family and consumer sciences. She serves as a NABS board member and the president of the Louisiana Association of Blind Students. She also serves on the board of directors of the NFB of Louisiana. Below, Jensen shares the story of her journey towards obtaining equal campus employment.
Albert Einstein once said, "A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving." When I became involved in the NFB, I never realized how much I had to give. Even though I had already been given so much, I never contemplated I could continue to receive. I also never imagined that I could take on an institution as powerful as Louisiana State University. However, after applying to be a Resident Assistant and receiving the job, I found myself doing what I formally believed impossible.
In the spring of 2003, I decided that I wanted to do something a little different to give back to the residents of LSU, which is what initially led me to apply for the RA position. After going through what seemed to be an endless application and interview process, the day finally came when I, along with about 100 others, was going to find out whether or not I had been selected. I found out I had received a position. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. For me, this was a major accomplishment for two reasons. First, to be selected, despite my blindness, was a big deal. Since I had never known another blind RA, it was nice to consider myself a trail blazer. Additionally, although this was a big accomplishment, I saw the fact that I had been one of twenty applicants chosen as even bigger. I immediately began thinking of alternative techniques that I could use to do the job and decided to set up a meeting with the director of the hall to which I had been assigned. I knew that she would have questions.
The meeting with my boss could not have gone better. She seemed really excited to have me on staff. The semester came to an end, and I was feeling pretty comfortable. I felt like I had made it through the worst of the challenges and assumed that my job was safe. Unfortunately, I was wrong; this was only the beginning of the story.
In mid-June, I received a phone call from my boss. She asked me if I would mind if she gave someone from Human Resources my phone number because they had some questions for me. I saw no harm in her passing my number along; I figured that the conversation would be one similar to the one which I had had with her. I would answer some questions and that would be the end of it. When I finally heard from the lady from HR, she informed me that they wanted my physician to fill out a form about me. As soon as she said this, my first thought was "No, absolutely not." I pulled myself together and politely told her that no doctor would be able to state my capabilities. I tried to make her see my point of view, but I was unfortunately unsuccessful. She was very adamant about the forms needing to be filled out by a doctor.
I knew this was wrong. I could almost guarantee that they were not making any of the other new staff members go through this. I knew exactly what I should do. I called several of my Federation friends to get their opinions on the situation and what they thought I should do. I got basically the same answer: LSU should be asking me about my abilities, instead of listening to some doctor who, most likely, knew nothing about me and my capabilities as a blind person. The only thing I was afraid of was losing my job, but I knew I had to stand my ground. If I let them get away with this, what else would they try?
The rest of the summer progressed without further incident until I again spoke to the lady from HR and was informed that I would be receiving a new job description. My radar was up again. I had the feeling that they were purposely writing a new job description, and these suspicions were all but confirmed when I read it. It was completely skewed to make it look as if all aspects of the job were visual, and it made it appear as if I would be unable to complete the required tasks successfully. I was extremely upset about the new job description. I could not believe that they thought so little of the capabilities of blind people. At this point, I knew I had to do something.
Fortunately, I knew exactly who to call for advice. I received the job description on a Saturday and by Monday morning had phoned Peggy Elliott. She told me that she thought it was time for me to find myself a good attorney. She was going to call Dr. Maurer to get his opinion and then get back to me. I waited eagerly for her to call me back. When she did, I was told that Dr. Maurer agreed with her. I was a little overwhelmed because I simply couldn't believe that this was happening to me. Though I had sat through numerous NFB Presidential reports, I never believed that anything like this could ever happen to me.
The summer ended; I still refused to do the paper work, even though the deadline was quickly approaching. Meanwhile, the attorney search continued. We kept running into snags, mainly because almost all of the attorneys that we found were already on retainer by LSU.
The day before I was supposed to move in to begin training for my job, I received a phone call from one of the associate directors of Residential Life. He informed me that we, along with some other university officials, were to have two meetings to discuss how I would do the job. I was relieved. I thought that LSU was actually going to do the right thing. Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. When I arrived, I could already sense the tension. I felt like a lamb being led to slaughter. We talked for about three hours, going over every aspect of the job description. At the conclusion of the meeting, I was told that they would be in touch, and the only thing I could do was wait. I was very shaken after that whole ordeal. I was feeling a mix of emotions including hurt, anger and just plain fear
Despite the way I was feeling, I managed to pull myself together for the afternoon meeting. It went surprisingly well, since no one seemed at all worried about how I would do the job. If I were going to have to prove myself, it would be because I was new, not because I was blind. I left that meeting feeling much better, and I looked forward to starting first thing the next morning. However, when I went to sleep that night, I was unaware that my life would be drastically changed in a matter of hours.
I awoke the next morning and headed out with confidence. It was hard to believe that the first day of training was finally here. I made it about half way across campus when my cell phone rang. I considered not answering it, but I thought it might be one of my friends calling to give me some last minute words of encouragement. To my dismay, the voice on the other end of the phone was not a friend but one of the people from RL who I had met the previous day. He asked me if I could stop by his office on my way to training. I knew what was about to happen, but I did not want to believe it. Upon reaching his office, my suspicions were immediately confirmed. They were reassigning me to an office position! I went numb. I had been falsely hired; I had signed a contract and felt betrayed that they could do this. As I listened to him trying to soften the blow by rattling on about how great my new position would be, my shock turned to hurt. I just sat there biting my lip to keep from crying. The one thing I had been dreading since this whole ordeal started had actually happened. Action had to be taken.
I immediately got on the phone with Pam Allen, my NFB State President, and spilled out what had happened--all the while trying to hold it together. I was told that we were still looking for an attorney, but with my current situation, the search was stepped up. That same day we were able to find one in New Orleans who seemed as if he'd be able to help. I spoke to him later that day, and we set up a meeting for the following week. The only thing that he told me, which I didn't really like, was that I would have to take the office job in order to pursue legal action. I thought, "Are you serious? You want me to work for those people who have just ripped my world apart?" I felt better after talking to him, but only slightly.
I met with my attorney and discussed the details of my case. He explained some of my options, but he told me the first thing I would have to do is file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When I spoke with the EEOC, they felt LSU had done nothing wrong. But LSU changed the job description and broke a contract. How had they not done anything wrong? I was told that LSU would be sent a copy of the complaint, so now I had to wait for them to receive it and respond to it. Since the EEOC had found no wrong-doing, I was released with a "right to sue" letter.
One week after filing the complaint, I received a call from my boss saying that the compensation for my new job had been changed to match what I would have gotten as an RA. Obviously, they had received my paperwork from the EEOC. I was unsure whether to take the change in compensation. It seemed as if they were trying to buy me off. They thought I would go away and leave them alone. I called my attorney, and he said that I had to take it. He also told me that there was nothing else he could do for me since LSU had changed the compensation. I thought it was very unfair that LSU could get off so easily.
I remained with RL for another month and never saw my "change in compensation." My attorney had told me previously that I could leave the department of RL, provided that I could find another position. By October, I had had enough of the department. Fortunately, I was able to return to the position that I held the previous year in the office of Student Services in the College of Education. I was looking forward to returning to a place where I was not only needed, but more importantly, wanted.
My legal battle with LSU was put on hold but only temporarily. One afternoon in early October, I spoke with Angela Wolf, the NFB-NABS President. After listening to my story, she said something which put the wheels in motion again. She asked me if I still wanted to fight. I told her that I did, but I no longer knew what to do. She suggested I call Dr. Maurer, so that's exactly what I did.
The first thing he said was to call my attorney and dismiss him. After I did this, Dr. Maurer told me he would be contacting Scott LaBarre, an attorney with the NFB, to discuss my situation. After I spoke with Dr. Maurer, I couldn't imagine why I had not done all of this sooner.
A few days later, Scott contacted me, and my legal battle was once again moving forward. As of the end of November, we filed suit in federal court in Baton Rouge. It took LSU a long time to respond, and it was not until mid-March that both sides finally sat down to see if we could reach an agreement. To me, the meeting went well. However, it took time to hear back from LSU's attorney, and when we finally did, the news was not good. They offered me a position, not as an RA, but an Academic Peer Mentor (APM). As nice as the offer was, I had no interest in it. Though it would have been a great opportunity, it just was not the position for which I had been hired. I spoke to Scott and expressed my feelings about the offer. He explained a few options: We could still try to settle without a job being part of it or take the case to trial. I was very torn; part of me wanted to settle and put this behind me, but there was also a part of me who still wanted to fight for the position. I wanted to prove to LSU, (and to myself), that I was more than capable of doing it. Once again, I sought the opinions of several Federation friends. Each of them raised very good points and gave me much to ponder. In the end, because of personal reasons not related to blindness, I decided to settle the case in the summer of 2004 without a job. Even though some people may have disagreed with the decision, I felt that I truly did what was best for me. Regardless of how things ended, I know one thing is certain: I never would have made it without the support of my Federation family.
Unfortunately, discrimination still exists, but, because of the NFB, we are made stronger. The support and the beliefs of thousands of people can help us make it through the hard times. We are more successful because of the actions of those who have gone before us, those who have received and from those who have given back. It's what we can give and take from one another that makes us such a powerful force in changing what it means to be blind.
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