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Eye Clinic to Compensate Disabled Teen Denied Care

Settlement: Hollie Stevens, who was not given an exam because she has Down syndrome, will receive $5,000.


IRVINE — The Eye Institute of Orange County, a private ophthalmological practice, agreed with the Justice Department to pay $5,000 to compensate a teenager allegedly denied an appointment because she has Down syndrome, the agency said Thursday.

The settlement followed the agency's investigation into a complaint filed a year ago by Hollie Stevens, an Irvine resident, now 17, that the Eye Institute violated federal prohibitions against discrimination by businesses against people with disabilities.

In a complaint filed by her foster parents, Stevens alleged that on March 5, 1996, the Eye Institute refused her request for an exam because the facility "was not equipped to handle patients with Down's syndrome."

"We had absolutely no idea that there would be any kind of settlement. We were thrilled and shocked," said Stevens' foster father, Dirk Van Tatenhove, who noted that the agency is directing the money into a trust fund that she can use for travel.

Van Tatenhove said his foster daughter wanted an exam to treat clogged and infected tear ducts--a common problem for people with Down syndrome, who often have small tear ducts. He said another doctor prescribed medication for her tear ducts.

According to the complaint, Dr. J. Michael Walcott represented the Eye Institute in its settlement with the government. He did not return calls made to the practice's offices in Irvine and Laguna Hills.

The Justice Department reports increasing complaints from disabled people saying they have been unfairly denied medical services since antidiscrimination provisions became effective in 1992.

John Wodatch, chief of the agency's disability rights section, said the office now gets about 100 to 200 such complaints a year--four times the level five years ago.

He said complaints involve issues such as medical facilities that are not accessible to people in wheelchairs, doctors who do not provide a sign-language interpreter for the deaf and practitioners who refuse to treat AIDS patients.

Wodatch attributed the increase in complaints to disabled individuals' rising awareness of their rights.

"We get a lot of complaints in which people who are required to provide sign-language interpreters for medical intervention don't know about the law or don't understand it," he said.

But the incident at the Eye Institute was not a matter of ignorance, he said. The agency received as evidence a taped message from the doctor's office, left on the answering machine of Stevens' foster parents, that described its policy of not treating people with Down syndrome.

In the settlement, the Eye Institute agreed not to discriminate against anyone on the basis of any disability. It promised to inform employees of its nondiscrimination policy and post copies of the policy at the reception desks of its Irvine and Laguna Hills offices.

The law requires private entities, including doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies, to give people with disabilities equal opportunity to receive goods and services.

The law covers a wide range of other entities, such as retail stores, restaurants, hotels, theaters, museums, libraries, parks, private schools and day-care centers.

The law prohibits less obvious forms of discrimination, such as requiring all customers--including those who are blind--to present a driver's license as identification for paying a check. It also requires that effective communication services or devices be made available for people who are deaf or blind, such as interpreters, listening devices, note takers and Braille or large-print materials.

Individuals may bring lawsuits to obtain court orders to stop discrimination. They may also lodge complaints with the attorney general, who may seek monetary damages and civil penalties of up to $50,000 for the first violation and $100,000 for any subsequent violations.


Open-Door Policy

The Americans With Disabilities Act bars discrimination against the mentally and physically handicapped. Key elements of the law:

* Employment: Employers cannot discriminate against qualified job applicants or employees because of disabilities. Work sites must be accessible and efforts must be made to permit qualified people with disabilities to do their jobs, including restructuring a job, providing necessary devices or modifying a work schedule.

* Public accommodations: Stores, restaurants, hotels and other public places of business must make all readily achievable efforts to make their goods and services accessible. Efforts may include handicapped parking areas, ramps, wide aisles and handicapped restroom facilities. Businesses cannot refuse to admit disabled people and may not, for example, limit them to certain parts of a restaurant or require them to make appointments after regular business hours.

* Government services: State and local governments are barred from discriminating against disabled employees or consumers seeking government services.

* Transportation: Municipal bus and train systems and privately operated van services must be made accessible.

* Telecommunications: Telephone companies must provide telecommunications relay services for speech-impaired or hearing-impaired customers who use teletypewriters or other non-voice terminal devices.

Sources: Times reports, U.S. Department of Justice

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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