Accessibility, File Review, Legal Support, Life Care Plan, Medical Consultation, Technology

When the Chain of Command Fails To Assist the Disabled

 January 15, 2018

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

One does not have to work for the military to be reminded of the chain of command. Dawn Dunphy works for the U.S. Navy and has followed the chain from her equal employment opportunity office to human resources, IT and various other offices. This has gone on for four years and now Dunphy is scheduled to be fired for an “inability to perform” due to a disability that limits her use of her hands and prevents her from typing.

Dunphy’s disability did not deter her from completing her MBA coursework at the University of Maine in 2013. She achieved this, in part, with the aid of a speech recognition program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The same program was provided to her during a recruitment event that led to a financial management specialist position at an office of the Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Philadelphia.

NAVSEA seemed fully prepared to accommodate Dunphy. The Dragon software was already pre-approved to function on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) platform upon which most of the agency’s computers operate. Dunphy was ready to serve her country and pursue a new career in the federal government. What went wrong?

When Dunphy reported to work in December of 2013, the software did not function. It was not compatible with NMCI. The next two months were spent attending meetings and getting to know co-workers while waiting for IT to install Dragon. For most of 2014, Dunphy shredded outdated documents and helped with non-computer based administrative tasks while a contractor uninstalled and reinstalled the program.

Eventually, the menial tasks faded and Dunphy began calling NMCI and internal IT about her accessibility issues. She was forced to remain at her desk while being told it was her fault, or that the constantly swapped-out computer was malfunctioning, or any number of excuses. Blame was even passed off to the software’s manufacturer, who in turn blamed it on NMCI’s security settings. This continued until August 2015, when the Navy placed Dunphy on administrative leave.

In September, after a two-year waiting game, Dunphy received a notice of proposed removal. The Navy is calling it an incompatibility issue between the software and NMCI. Yet, the notice explicitly refers to her “inability to perform as a result of a medical condition.” Dunphy, however, is calling it continuous noncompliance with Section 508, a 1998 amendment to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to make all information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

In 2016, Dunphy filed her first formal complaint with the Department of Defense. Though the Navy had taken some steps to help her, such as providing a typist and attempting to find a job that would better accommodate her, Dunphy does not consider them to be “reasonable accommodation.” She plans to fight her firing, taking on the Navy with no income, while searching for a new job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission assigned her an administrative law judge in September.

Assistive technology always grabs our attention. In this case, the technology turned out to be a key factor in a case that is highly relevant to those of us who advocate for individuals with disabilities. Workplace accommodation is very important to us and we will be following Ms. Dunphy’s case with interest.

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