A 40-year-old Lakewood woman born without arms and legs claims she was fired from a job as head social worker at a Long Beach hospital because administrators there objected to her turning pages with her lips.
Diane DeVries, who earned a college degree with a pen pressed between the stump of her right arm and her face, filed a discrimination charge last week with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in Los Angeles in an effort to win back the $12-an-hour job at Long Beach Doctors Hospital.
"I felt like a dirty sock they just threw aside," said DeVries, an affable woman who earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from UCLA in 1987, despite a congenital birth defect that left her with two small stumps for arms, and no legs. "I have lived a basically normal life. Most of my friends are not disabled. This brought to the surface the fact that I am different. That's just never happened before."
Hospital Administrator Thomas V. Olson said he decided DeVries should not return to work at the 43-bed hospital because she was observed turning the pages of hospital documents with her mouth, a practice he and two other doctors considered a health hazard.
"This is an infection control situation. We can't permit that. We have standards here to protect our patients and our people," Olson said in a recent interview. "I feel sorry for the lady, but I just don't think that behavior could be allowed here. I was thinking not only of other people, but of her, too."
DeVries' attorney, Larry Minsky, says she is capable of turning pages with the stump of her arm rather than her mouth, but the hospital never bothered to ask her.
Minsky contends that the hospital violated a state law requiring that employers "reasonably accommodate" disabled workers to help them perform a job.
"If the practice is found to be medically unacceptable, then the proper thing to do is to talk to her like a human being and say, 'Hey, is there another way of doing that?' " the attorney said.
Without the job, DeVries says, she cannot pay the $550 rent on her apartment and faces commitment to a nursing home, a downward spiral from which disabled people do not easily recover, she said.
"When you're in a nursing home you lose your Social Security benefits. You can't get a place to live without your Social Security benefits and you can't get your Social Security benefits without an address," she said. "It's a Catch-22."
DeVries, who has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood, said there were few days in her life as memorable as Thursday, June 28, when she woke up to report to her first day on the hospital job as director of social services. She arranged for her personal attendant to help her shower and dress early enough to catch two buses and arrive at the hospital at 8:45 a.m.
For the first time since she left Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey--18 years old and determined to be independent--DeVries says her life had come together. She had a college degree, a one-bedroom apartment in Lakewood and a job counseling hospital patients not unlike herself.
"The only way I was going to lose that job was if I quit--so I thought," she said.
Four days later, on the Fourth of July, the hospital relayed a message that her services were no longer needed.
"We can only assume they don't wish to have people with handicaps in and around the facility, that they don't want people with the 'look' of Diane," said her Long Beach attorney, Minsky. "This is Neanderthal."
Marta Fernandez, a Century City attorney representing the hospital, said no discrimination laws were violated because DeVries was officially employed by Associated Social Resources Inc., a Los Angeles firm that places social workers in hospitals. Long Beach Doctors Hospital had contracted with the firm to fill the position.
In addition, Olson said, the hospital had not agreed to take DeVries on permanently, but had brought her in to fill in for a vacationing social worker. That position has since been filled permanently, however, he said.
DeVries insists that the position given to her was permanent, with the salary to begin at $12 and increase to $14 sometime afterward. She said janitors had even built up a desk so she would be able to write.
DeVries, who previously worked as a counselor assisting disabled people for an agency in Paramount, said she has been unable to find work since she lost the hospital job.
Fernandez confirmed this week that she had received the discrimination charge filed by DeVries.
Associated Social Resources, the placement firm, also was named in the claim, which said the agency complied with the hospital administrator's request that DeVries be removed from the job. The agency's director, Meryl Stern, refused to comment.
Officials at the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in Los Angeles said they are awaiting a response from the hospital and will then begin an investigation, which could take up to a year to complete.
Meanwhile, the department will attempt to negotiate a settlement to the dispute. If that fails, Minsky said, a lawsuit will be filed.