DMV sued over license requirements for people with disabilities

mquillin@newsobserver.comFebruary 18, 2014 

— North Carolina discriminates against drivers with disabilities by subjecting them to unnecessary road tests and medical exams and arbitrarily restricting their driving, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.

Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, filed the case Tuesday on behalf of six individuals with disabilities. The nonprofit agency is named as a plaintiff on behalf of other disabled drivers it says are subject to discrimination by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The complaint said DMV improperly applies its Medical Evaluation Program – meant to identify drivers with medical problems that might cause them to crash – to drivers who are capable and safe, but have a physical disability. The complaint said the practice is based on stereotypes about people with disabilities, and it serves as a surcharge on those drivers, who must spend extra time and money proving they don’t pose a risk.

Such treatment is a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, the suit said.

“We can’t sit by and allow the DMV to stereotype and demean North Carolina drivers with disabilities,” said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights NC. “We are taking this action to protect and promote the dignity of these individuals and all individuals with disabilities, and to enforce the right to be free from discrimination on account of their disability.”

Marge Howell, DMV spokeswoman, said agency attorneys “are currently reviewing these claims, and we will work to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. We are disappointed that the organization decided to take legal action. NCDMV remains committed to providing the highest level of service to all customers in the state of North Carolina.”

Advocates: Longtime practice

Smith said her organization has heard from many disabled people over the years that DMV had treated them capriciously, but most have been afraid to complain for fear that the agency would restrict or revoke their licenses.

It does so, the suit said, by placing individuals in its Medical Evaluation Program, which DMV’s says is “administered by the Division of Motor Vehicles, with medical counsel and individual case recommendations provided by physicians and physician extenders within the Highway Safety Scientific Services Section of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.” Drivers can be referred to the program by physicians, family members, driver’s license examiners and law enforcement officers.

“Being in the … program is not a punishment, nor is it meant to be unfair,” the DMV website says. “Driving in North Carolina is a privilege, and in order to protect that privilege for other North Carolina drivers, DMV has the authority to determine if you are medically ‘fit’ for the privilege of driving.”

The state cites medical conditions affecting a person’s ability to drive as the cause of about half of all crashes that result in serious injury or death. But Disability Rights NC said there is no evidence that drivers with orthopedic impairments or who use hand controls present an increased accident risk.

Conditions placed

Once a driver is placed into the medical review program, he or she remains there until removed from it by DMV. While in the program, drivers can be required to undergo medical testing and provide documentation from doctors and therapists. They may have a range of conditions placed on their licenses, including limits on their speed, how far from home they can travel and being restricted to daytime driving and told not to drive on interstates.

Drivers can be required to add special equipment to their vehicles, such as wheel knobs and hand controls for braking and accelerating. One plaintiff in the suit was told by DMV only to drive a vehicle equipped with a wheelchair lift, though the device would have no effect on the ability to drive, the suit said.

In addition, drivers placed into the program may be issued licenses that expire after one year, rather than the five to eight years for other drivers. They may have to undergo annual driving tests and “behind-the-wheel assessments” by occupational therapists, even if they have not been in an accident or issued a citation, and, the suit said, even if they have a letter from a physician saying their disability does not affect their driving, is not degenerative and has not changed.

The suit said restrictions are added, and sometimes removed, without explanation.

Suit: Drivers not given info

Drivers who feel they have been unfairly treated by DMV because of a disability, the suit said, are sometimes erroneously told there is no appeal process, and the only way to keep their license is to comply with requests for evaluation and documentation.

The lawsuit includes the case of a 60-year-old Raleigh woman who has physical impairments as a result of being in a car accident as a child, but needs no special equipment to drive. Last fall, when she went to renew her license, she took and passed a driving test. Afterward she was told by a DMV examiner that a restriction would be added requiring that she use a wheel knob, though she wasn’t using one in the test, it hasn’t been recommended by her physician and she doesn’t want one.

The woman returned to DMV a few days later to protest the restriction, and was road-tested again. She passed again, without a wheel knob, but was told the restriction would not be removed.

“She was further told that, if she continued to challenge the wheel knob restriction, the DMV may add more restrictions to her license,” the suit says.

Other plaintiffs in the case are drivers who have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, a spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. They are aged from 18 to 60. All have valid drivers licenses.

DMV, Thomas, Tata named

The suit names the state Department of Transportation and its commissioner, Kelly J. Thomas, along with the Division of Motor Vehicles and its secretary, Anthony Tata, as defendants in their capacity as heads of their agencies. It asks that the court find the defendants in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, and to order them to stop discriminating against drivers with disabilities based on speculation, stereotypes and generalizations. It asks that the defendants pay the cost of bringing the lawsuit.

Smith, of Disability Rights NC, said the group would like for the state to better train DMV staff, develop a clearer policy relating to drivers with disabilities and a more transparent appeal process.

“This demonstrates that there are still misperceptions about what a person with a disability can and cannot do,” she said.

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