With assistance from Disability Rights North Carolina, six local residents are suing the Department of Motor Vehicles for what they view are discriminatory tests and restrictions.
By Rose Hoban
One day in November 2012, in preparation for moving from Durham to Raleigh, Natasha Wright walked into the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Durham to change her address.
On that day, she carried her cane.
Wright, 50, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002. She said she occasionally uses a cane to walk if she thinks the day might be long and she might get fatigued. Sometimes she has some weakness on her right side, but she said it’s never kept her from doing anything she wants to do.
“I went to sit down and the man asked why I have a cane. I told him, and he was, like, ‘OK,'” Wright remembered. “He did the address change and as I was waiting to get my picture taken, I was called back and told there was a medical report, and because I had M.S. I had to have the medical report filled out.”
Wright paid for her neurologist to fill out the report and returned it within 60 days. Three months later, in April, she got back a license that restricted her from driving more than 25 miles from home.
After appealing the decision, Wright received word from the DMV of further restrictions: no driving on the interstate, never faster than 45 mph. To add to Wright’s frustration, she was told she would have to repeat the extra steps to getting a license every year.
This week, she became one of six plaintiffs suing the DMV for discriminating against her because she has a disability.
“I deserve to enjoy the privilege of driving and I’ve never done anything to violate that,” Wright said. “If I ever got to the place where I was endangering someone because of my M.S., I’d gladly do that; but until that point, don’t make it difficult for me.”
But the lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights North Carolina, alleges that the DMV is doing just that: making it difficult for people with disabilities to get a license, even when there’s no evidence they might be impaired or dangerous.
“The point we’re trying to make is that unsafe drivers should not be allowed to drive,” said Holly Stiles, an attorney with Disability Rights. “But the folks in our lawsuit, their doctors have said they’re safe drivers and yet they’re being made to prove it over and over again. [It’s] a generalization on the basis that they have a disability.”
The lawsuit is based on the belief that the DMV is violating several laws: the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbids discrimination based on disability; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids public agencies receiving federal funds from discriminating based on disability; and a clause in the North Carolina constitution, which guarantees due process.
“You have this large social institution that’s labeling people in groups instead of looking at them as individuals,” Wright said. “Me, I happen to be able to operate my motor vehicle fine. I don’t understand why they’ve targeted me.”
Stiles noted that Wright asked to appeal the decision after being restricted from driving on highways and never got a response. But eight months later, she received a letter from the DMV saying she’d lose her license because she had not submitted for an additional road test.
That letter also “noted that Ms. Wright had no appeal rights and the only way to maintain her license was to provide ‘requested medical requirements for an evaluation,'” as written in the formal complaint, filed in the Eastern District Court of North Carolina.
Pay to drive
According to the complaint, the DMV required at least 89 people with disabilities to obtain additional behind-the-wheel assessments in only one quarter of 2013. And those people had to pay for those assessments, at a cost of between $400 and $500.
That’s about what it cost another plaintiff, Katherine McCrory, 27, to take an additional road test when she applied for a North Carolina driver’s license.
In 2009, McCrory was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Asheville and making only a couple of hundred dollars a month. Without insurance, she had trouble finding and paying for a physician to fill out a medical form indicating that she was able to drive.
McCrory has had a form of muscular dystrophy and started using a power wheelchair when she was 19 years old and walking became difficult. She also has a hearing impairment and uses hearing aids, but is able to talk over the phone.
Even after getting the doctor’s letter, she had to go to the DMV for extra written tests and an additional road test.
“I had to go in and do a series of tests; it was an hour before they’d even take me on the road,” she said. “One test was the numbers 1 through 25 scattered on a piece of paper and I had to connect the numbers in order. I guess it’s a cognitive test, but my illness doesn’t work that way.
“It was pretty offensive.”
McCrory did well on the road test and the examiner told her he would recommend that she didn’t need to take another. Nonetheless, a few weeks later she got a letter saying she could keep her license, but with restrictions, and that she would have to repeat the testing the following year.
“I was furious when I got that letter,” she said.
Stiles said it’s against the law to require people with disabilities to pay for road tests that others get for free. She also said she’s been working with the DMV for several years to resolve cases like Wright’s and McCrory’s.
“Disability Rights always tries to work with state agencies to address issues that come up,” Stiles said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always successful, and we continued to get phone calls from folks that they were being required to go through these medical tests and evaluations.”
Margaret Howell, a spokeswoman for the DMV, said there was little she could say in light of the pending litigation.
“Our attorneys are currently reviewing these claims, and we will work to resolve the matter as quickly as possible,” Howell wrote in an emailed statement.
“We are disappointed that the organization decided to take legal action,” she wrote. “NCDMV remains committed to providing the highest level of service to all customers in the state of North Carolina.”
Cover photo courtesy William Ross, flickr creative commons