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Disabilities agency settles deaf woman's suit

Discrimination found; sensitivity policy required

MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Department of Aging and Disabilities has been found to have discriminated against a deaf woman in violation of the state's Fair Employment Practices Act, and will pay her $30,000.

The state Human Rights Commission found that the department discriminated against Marjorie Wells of Montpelier, a former employee in its Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

In addition to the $30,000 payment, the settlement requires the department to draft a policy for its employees on cultural sensitivity toward people who have become deaf later in life. Wells lost her hearing as a young adult.

Wells has argued that because she lost her hearing after becoming an adult, she is distanced from both the culturally deaf world and the hearing world.

Wells, who worked as a counselor for the vocational rehabilitation division, brought suit in 2000. She said the regional manager of the department's Barre office, the head vocational rehabilitation counselor and her immediate supervisor, who was born deaf, all made discriminatory remarks toward her that, coupled with other factors, made a hostile work environment.

In Human Rights Commission documents, Wells said she was frequently left out of meetings, hiring panels, and informal discussions because some staff saw the need for an interpreter as a burden.

The commission found that Wells had been provided some accommodations, but that the environment as a whole was unfairly discriminatory toward her.

Wells alleged that when she asked that the staff learn basic American Sign Language, her regional manager, who was not named in the suit, said, ''Wouldn't it be nice if all the people in France spoke English for the tourists?"

The regional manager ''stated that he might have made the statement about 'people in France,' but if he did, it was not meant in a derogatory way," said a document on file at the commission.

The department also said it didn't have the resources to meet Wells's request.

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