Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Disabled man mistreated by E-check staff

Manager fired after affront

By Erica Solvig
Enquirer staff writer

LEBANON - All Rodney Jackson wanted was to get the required E-check emissions test so he could renew the annual registration for his Mercury Grand Marquis.

But when the 47-year-old former police officer, who uses a wheelchair, went to the testing station on Stubbs Mills Road, he was forced to get out of the car - even though a stroke and deteriorating health have left his legs nearly useless. And he didn't have his motorized chair with him.

"I made a request for reasonable accommodation," said Jackson, who serves on the governor's Council on People with Disabilities.

"The question is, why didn't that happen?"

The E-check program has been in place since 1996 as a way to meet the federal order to clean up the region's air. Computer equipment is used to determine how much material that contributes to air pollution come out of the vehicle's tailpipe. Without passing the test, which costs $19.50 in Ohio, a vehicle can't be registered with the state. Fourteen Ohio counties participate in the program, including Butler, Clermont, Hamilton, and Warren counties. Several local officials, including the Butler and Warren County commissioners, have asked lawmakers to abolish the tests and find another way to clean up the air. Kentucky lawmakers also are looking to halt tailpipe testing, which is required in Northern Kentucky.

Reinforcing policies

Envirotest Systems Corp. is sending a training bulletin out to all E-check employees, stating: "As a general rule and in the interest of safety, customers are not permitted to drive their own vehicles or ride in the vehicle during the test. The only exception to this is if the driver or passenger is physically disabled and cannot exit the vehicle; they are permitted to remain in the vehicle. Every accommodation will be made to provide quality customer care for the motorist with a physical disability. Physically disabled drivers must be escorted through the test process by station management at all times."

That's a question state officials are asking now, too. Jackson's experience prompted them to fire the station manager and send a training bulletin to all employees of the 44 E-check stations in 14 counties restating the policy that if a physically disabled customer cannot exit the vehicle, the customer can stay in the car.

"It was absolutely inexcusable," Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Chris Jones wrote in an e-mail to Jackson.

"In addition to a complete lack of understanding of the rules and procedures that should have been followed, what was described to me was behavior that fails to even reach the level of decency and respect that individuals owe to one another," Jones wrote.

When Jackson goes out, as he did July 13 to the E-check station, it's not uncommon for his friend Steven Jones of Lebanon to be driving the car. Jackson says he's in bed about 80 percent of the day, so he has to save up his energy before running errands. Typically, he stays in the car with his service dog, Lieutenant, and leaves his chair, which weighs nearly 300 pounds, at home.

When he got to the E-check station that day, he protested after an employee and a manager said everyone must get out of the car during the test. After much objection - Jackson says he can stand only as long as it takes to shave, and that's with medication for the pain - Jones finally pulled the car around to get Jackson as close as possible to where he was told to go.

As Jackson was removed from the car, the door was shut on Lieutenant's tail, which required veterinary treatment later that day and took about a week to heal.

Then the car failed the test.

Since the vehicle had just been in the shop, Jackson and Jones thought it might be retaliatory.

"They were very annoyed with us at that point," Jackson said.

So the duo went to the Mason testing location to retest the car. By this point, Jackson said he was so fed up he didn't bother to ask to stay in the car.

When the car failed again, they went to a Blue Ash agency, where Jackson was given an extension.

According to Envirotest Systems Corp., which is contracted by the state to run the E-check stations, people with disabilities are allowed to stay in the car during the E-checks. Other people, however, are asked to get out because of safety concerns, according to company spokeswoman Tia Trivison.

Of 105 tests for customers with disabilities so far this year, this is the only complaint like this that Envirotest has received, she said.

"Obviously, we regret that it happened," Trivison said. "(The manager) acted outside of our policies that we have in place. We're concerned for and respect the dignity of all our customers."

Even so, Trivison says, all employees will be reviewing company policies in the next week, with special reinforcement of the disabilities clause, to ensure that this does not happen again.

EPA Director Jones, in e-mail correspondence to Jackson, said employees "acknowledged that the appropriate procedures were not followed, although they had a different view of how you were treated."

Jackson says he was reassured by the action taken, although he didn't agree with the implication that he had misrepresented his treatment.

Jackson, who has been on a crusade for years to further compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, says that the entire experience was so frustrating that he sold the car.

"It just made me fume," Jackson said. "If you get bad service at McDonald's, Wendy's, Wal-Mart or Kmart, you say, 'Fine, I'll take my business elsewhere.' But what do you do with E-check?"



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