Blind Hoosiers claim Indiana failing to provide access to benefits programs

Claiming “systemic violations of the civil rights of blind Indiana residents,” two individuals and the National Federation of the Blind filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday against the directors of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration and the Indiana Division of Family Resources.

The plaintiffs assert the defendants failed to provide printed communications about government benefits in alternative formats, such as Braille, and instead directed the blind individuals to have sighted third parties read the materials to them.

As a result, the plaintiffs contend, their ability to privately and independently apply, renew and modify benefits has been compromised. Also, they claim they are at greater risk of failing to maintain their enrollment in programs, which could cause them to lose their health care coverage as well as food and financial assistance.

The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief. They want the defendants to be required to provide all print communication in alternative formats that would be accessible to sight-impaired individuals. In addition, they maintain the defendants should have to remediate their websites and implement policies, procedures and practices to ensure alternative formats are consistently offered to blind people.

The lawsuit, Christopher Meyer, Sarah Meyer and the National Federation of the Blind, Inc., v. Jennifer Walthall, in her official capacity as Secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, and Adrienne Shields, in her official capacity as Director of the Indiana Division of Family Resources, 1:19-cv-3311, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Plaintiffs are represented by Indiana Disability Rights, Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP and the Law Office of Jana Eisinger, PLLC.

“Indiana agencies are required to offer communications with blind people that are as effective as communications with others,” Tom Crishon, managing attorney at Indiana Disability Rights, said in a press release. “The plaintiffs are simply asking DFR to provide correspondence regarding their benefits in a format that is accessible and necessary to afford them an equal opportunity to participate in the program. Despite repeated attempts to work with DFR to achieve a workable solution, the agency continually fails to effectively communicate with blind Hoosiers.”

The FSSA issued a statement saying it has not received the lawsuit and it does not comment on pending litigation.

Christopher Meyer and Sarah Meyer, the named plaintiffs, are blind siblings who receive health coverage through Indiana’s Medicaid program. Each lost their insurance because they could not see the printed materials from the FSSA and DFR. Despite their multiple requests for documents in another format like large print or audio CD, the agencies said the alternatives to printed communications could not be provided.

In March of 2018, Christopher attempted to reapply for Medicaid through the FSSA online portal. Although he regularly navigates accessible websites using the JAWS (Job Access With Speech) program, he was not able to complete the online application because several form fields were not properly labeled for the screen access software.

According to the complaint, Shields of the DFR did respond to Christopher in late 2018. She stated her agency would provide all future print correspondence in Braille, but the agency’s assessment of its website did not find any accessibility issues. However, the complaint notes, the FSSA and DFR have yet to provide Christopher with any document in Braille or another accessible format.

The other named party, the National Federation of the Blind, claims it also has been harmed by the defendants’ actions. Namely, the organization has had to divert resources to address “Indiana’s discriminatory practices that otherwise could have been directed to other programs and activities.”

Plaintiffs allege the defendants have violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide communications in formats that blind individuals can access. Also, they assert the defendants have violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by not providing blind individuals an equal opportunity to use and benefit from public assistance programs and activities.

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