Thursday, December 24, 2009

Louisiana college student sues over inaccessible doctor's office

From The Daily Comet:

THIBODAUX, La. — A Nicholls State University student alleges that a local doctor illegally discriminated against her after she complained about the office's wheelchair accessibility.

She claims the doctor refused to see her and had police called to have her and her mother removed from the premises.

Attorneys from the New Orleans-based Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that assists people with disabilities, filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the student, 24-year-old Ashley Borne (pictured) of Thibodaux, under provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Borne has spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord that causes nerve damage and permanent disability.

Dr. Dahlia Kirkpatrick did not return calls Monday and Tuesday. A woman who identified herself on the telephone as an office manager but refused to provide her name said Tuesday that she had not heard of the claims.

“There is no discrimination to my knowledge. I cannot account for what happened a year ago when I was not here. But we do not practice discrimination, and you can put that in capital letters,” she said.

The suit seeks a court order mandating that the doctor's office comply with accessibility standards under federal law and unspecified damages.

According to court papers, Borne went to Kirkpatrick's office at 1208 N. Canal Blvd. Jan. 8, 2008. To commence a course of treatment, according to court papers, she needed to see a general practitioner for referral to a specialist.

“She encountered barriers all over the place,” said one of Borne's attorneys, Susan Meyers. The court papers she prepared allege that the handicapped parking area did not have a striped zone that would allow someone to easily get out of her vehicle and into a wheelchair.

“She was not able to get out of the car by herself,” Meyers said. “There was a car parked in the parking spot next to her and the other side was a fence. She had to switch to the passenger side. Her mother, Loretta, pulled the van back into the parking spot. When she went to get into the office, the ramp was way too steep under the ADA guidelines.”

When they arrived inside the office, the court papers allege, the two women complained about the parking and ramp problems.

“The manager said that the building passed a city inspection,” Meyers continued, adding that the office manager then said the doctor was not going to see Borne and that the women should leave.

Thibodaux City Police were called, responding to a report of a patient behaving in a disorderly manner. A report was prepared but no arrests were made or tickets issued.

“They were very nice, and according to the police report the manager would not say what the problem was,” Meyers said.

The office manager working there at the time was identified in court papers as Danielle Martin. Attempts to locate her Tuesday were not successful.

The suit was only filed, Meyers said, after attempts to get responses from the doctor failed.

“It's terrible,” Meyers said. “This is a young woman, a student, she has a job, she got her driver's license a few years ago when she started to work, she has this vehicle that is specially equipped for her. She takes pride in a way that other people might take for granted at being able to run her own errands and help out her family. ...

“But beyond the issue of physical barriers at this office, which are bad enough, to be put out because you said something and to have the police called is just outrageous. It is sad. And people like Ashley should not have to be subjected to it.”

Ashley Borne agrees that the case is bigger than just her difficulty at one doctor's office.

For Borne, an accounting major who works at an H & R Block tax -preparation office in Thibodaux, the incident was one more insult in a lifetime spent battling barriers. Some were at places of potential employment with no wheelchair access. Then there was the elementary-school official's terse reply to her mother's complaint years ago about the bus she rode to school arriving late. She said her mother was told that it didn't matter if she was late for school because she was disabled.

“To me, it is not just my own situation,” Borne said. “They need to be made accessible. I saw one elderly lady trying to get up that ramp with a walker; she had a very hard time.”

Personal mobility, the idea that barriers to disabled people must fall, is an important issue for her.

“Imagine having to live your entire life asking if I need someone to help me,” she said.

According to doctor-rating information available through several online sources, Kirkpatrick has no complaints filed against her license. She attended medical school at Yale and graduated in the top 25 percent of her class in 1974.

Borne's father, Gerard Borne, who works for the Thibodaux Department of Public Works, said he and his wife have always encouraged their daughter's independence.