New Haven teacher who uses wheelchair sues district over lack of accommodations

Feb 2 2017

As it appeared in the New Haven Register

By Esteban L. Hernandez, New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN >> Fair Haven School teacher Paula Langlois wants access to her school like any other educator.

Langlois has multiple sclerosis and has used a wheelchair since 2011. After asking the district to install a keypad to the only handicap-accessible door, the district complied. Fair Haven School teaches grades K-8.

But it wasn’t enough.

Despite adding key-card access to the handicap door in August 2016 — after Langlois’ initial request in September 2015 — Langlois is suing the district after alleging it refused to make reasonable accommodations to address her disability. The lawsuit and her attorney said things haven’t necessarily changed.

“There are some caveats to that,” New Haven attorney Amanda M. DeMatteis said Wednesday. DeMatteis has represented Langlois since the teacher filed a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities complaint on April 19, 2016.

The civil lawsuit filed at New Haven Superior Court on Dec. 21 names the New Haven Board of Education as the sole defendant. City spokesman Laurence Grotheer issued a statement following a request for comment Wednesday.

“School district officials are aware of the lawsuit however, it is the policy and practice of New Haven Public Schools to withhold comment on matters involving pending litigation,” Grotheer said in the statement.

While the new key-card door gives Langlois more access, the door locks after 5 p.m., unlike another door used by most teachers and school employees accessed by a short flight of stairs. DeMatteis said the key-card access is “a step in the right direction,” but it doesn’t fulfill what Langlois is entitled to under the law. The lawsuit notes the keypad door frequently would malfunction and leave Langlois without access to the building.

“There have been issues as late as last week, relative to simply trying to get them (to mark) where the handicap parking spaces are,” DeMatteis said.

The latest issue is what DeMatteis said is poorly marked, blue lines designating a handicap parking spot. Without the proper boundaries, Langlois’ colleagues may not distinguish where this space begins and ends, which is problematic for Langlois because her specialized vehicle requires some space.

Langlois acquired a new van for this current school year last fall. This van includes a ramp on the passenger side that can’t be extended if someone parks too close to her vehicle. This leaves Langlois waiting outside for others to move their vehicles before Langlois can use the ramp to leave.

Accommodations made for Langlois weren’t an issue under the school’s previous principal, Mary Margaret Gethings. But the lawsuit alleges the accommodations changed after school Principal Heriberto Cordero came on board in September 2015. The lawsuit alleges issues started following the removal of Langlois’ dedicated parking spot due to construction.

Langlois filed a CHRO complaint in an attempt to address her concerns. On Sept. 23, Langlois received a right to sue letter from CHRO, allowing her to move forward with a formal lawsuit.

The ordeal has led to “sleepless nights, bouts of uncontrollable crying,” that have led Langlois to lose motivation to continue her career. The lawsuit alleges this stress caused by the situation has exacerbated Langlois’ multiple sclerosis.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult,” DeMatteis said. “She has a passion for these kids. She has a passion for her work. She wants to work as long as she reasonably can.”

The lawsuit additionally alleges disability discrimination that influenced the Board of Education’s decision-making, a direct violation of state statutes. Purposefully inflicting emotional distress is also alleged, as the lawsuit said the actions of the district led to “extreme emotional distress.” Langlois seeks damages in excess of $15,000.

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