AUGUSTA — When June Ellis of Monmouth, who’s deaf, requested an interpreter so that she could fully participate in a Living Well for Better Health course offered by Spectrum Generations, she was told there was no money available in the budget.
Instead, the Augusta-based agency on aging bought a speech recognition software program and instructed workshop facilitators to use easels to write comments and seat Ellis where she would be able to lip read.
It wasn’t enough, according to the Maine Human Rights Commission. On Monday, commissioners voted 4-0 to find reasonable grounds to believe Ellis, now 71, was a victim of disability discrimination in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act.
The vote overturned a recommendation by a commission investigator and followed oral presentations by two attorneys at the hearing. Commission findings are not law, but may become grounds for lawsuits.
Ellis, who watched Monday’s proceedings as they were translated by two American Sign Language interpreters, raised her clenched fists in victory after the vote.
She repeated that gesture outside the hearing room.
“I’m proud of that (victory),” she said. “I’m glad.” Ellis said she needed an interpreter to fully participate in the September 2011 workshop series.
“I can’t follow if there are people around a table,” she said. “I don’t focus on what they are talking about, and I want to focus.”
Ellis said she asks for interpreters when she wants to attend such things, but that other people she knows who are deaf are reluctant to insist on it.
“I’ve seen others take a back seat and take no for an answer,” she said.
Ellis was represented in the case by Kristin Aiello, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center of Maine. Aiello argued on Monday that Ellis was denied “full and equal enjoyment” of the workshop series.
She said that the overall organization has $6 million in assets and should have fulfilled Ellis’s request.
“The law requires that organizations plan for these types of expenses and prioritize them,” Aiello said. “Can you imagine trying to lip-read in a group setting?”
Attorney Erik Peters, who represented Spectrum Generations, said the agency couldn’t afford the accommodation at the time because it was running at a $65,000 deficit.
He said the interpreter cost was estimated at $2,000-$2,700. He added that as the state’s aging population expands, “The agency faces tough choices.”
Peters said the agency consulted people at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf to come up with reasonable alternatives to in-person interpretive services for Ellis.
Commission investigator Angela Tizon said she found that the cost of the interpreter — which Aiello estimated at $1,300 if the agency contracted directly with an interpreter presented an unreasonable burden for the agency and that the workshop was fully funded by grants which did not include money for interpreters.
After the hearing, Peters said he had no comment on the vote.
The case now moves into a conciliation phase.
In other commission cases Monday, a man from West Gardiner and a woman from Madison won support for their charges that they were victims of sex discrimination in the workplace.
The Maine Human Rights Commission voted Monday to find reasonable grounds to believe that Leigh Gagnon of West Gardiner and Danielle Beaman of Madison were unlawfully discriminated against by two separate firms.
Both cases were approved along with a number of others on the consent agenda, one of the commission’s first actions after a delayed start because of travel conditions.
Gagnon, 44, had accused Phrizbie Design, Inc., and Gillian Riley Lepisto of Kennebunkport, the owner who operates the design store from her home, of failing to hire him and of running an unlawful ad seeking “a female designer” in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act.
According to a report by commission investigator Michele Dion, the Craigslist ad, posted June 2, 2012, was taken down after several days, and Lepisto did not hire anyone. Lepisto also denied receiving an application for the job from Gagnon.
Gagnon’s related claim of age discrimination was dismissed by the commission.
Gagnon also has a charge of discrimination against Patrick Ouellette, of Biddeford Pool, who posted the ad at Lepisto’s request, and said he received no compensation for doing so. That case is being handled separately and was tabled, so it did not come up on Monday,
In the other case, Beaman had charged Abercrombie & Fitch, based in New Albany, Ohio, of discriminating against her by unlawfully cutting her hours because of her pregnancy.
Beaman worked at the Abercrombie & Fitch store at the Bangor Mall while she was a student at the University of Maine. She said Monday she now is a teacher at Madison Elementary School. She attended the hearing with her attorney, Robert Weaver. However, he did not make a presentation to the commission since no one from Abrecrombie & Fitch was there objecting the recommendation of the investigator.
According to the investigator’s report, Beaman was considered a valuable employee from February 2010 and a likely candidate for a manager-in-training program, working up to two four-hour shifts a week while school was in session. However, Beaman maintained she was scheduled to work only one four-hour shift in October and was called to work one shift in November. The company terminated her employment in March 2012.
Dion concluded, “(T)he real reason for the adverse actions taken against her was her pregnancy.”