VA health clinic tells disabled vet: ‘Wear a mask or you can’t come in, we don’t care about your disability.’

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Conroe, TX – I am a disabled veteran with PTSD. I only disclose this information for the purpose of clarifying that what I am about to share was in fact discrimination aimed at a veteran in noncompliance with the American with Disabilities Act. 

Yesterday, I showed up for an appointment at the VA Health Clinic in Conroe. 

First, a little background on this appointment. I scheduled it back in January, the earliest they could see me was in March. 

My eyesight is starting to get a little worse. Always having 20/20 vision, I started to worry when things got blurry when I read, and smaller print, once not an issue for me to see, became just a line on a label or a letter. 

COVID-19 showed up, and non-critical appointments started getting pushed back. Mine was scheduled two days before the March appointment for early April. Just a few days later, I received another notification that my appointment had been pushed to June 30th. 

Like many people, my days and dates are running together. I honestly thought that yesterday was the 30th. 

I walked into the front door of the clinic to see a rope line set up, routing VA visitors to the desk to fill out a form and have their temperature taken. I happily complied with these steps. Once she wrote my temperature on the form, she handed it to me and said I could head on up to the 3rd floor. 

As I headed to the elevator, She said, “you need your mask on before you get off the elevator.”

I politely informed her that I have a disability that prevents me from wearing a mask. 

She let me know that she didn’t think they would let me in. 

My response:

“The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it a crime to discriminate against someone with a handicap or disability. The VA turning me away for failure to wear a mask because I have a disability which that same VA diagnosed and rated me for is the text book definition of discrimination under the Act.”

She said she understood, but that it wasn’t her call.  She offered to call the charge nurse down. 

I gladly accepted. 

A few minutes later, he came down in scrubs and a mask. He spoke with the lady at the desk briefly before turning his attention to me. 

“I understand you have an appointment, but don’t have a mask”, he said. “We have one here at the desk we can give you.”

I stood and spoke with him in a lobby full of people who were watching intently to see what happened. 

I told him that I have a mask, I just can’t wear it due to a service-connected disability. 

“I am sorry sir, but we cannot let you in without a mask.”

He offered to have the doctor I was visiting call me to set up a telemedicine appointment. Being a vision screening, that would not work. He agreed. 

Needing to get my eyes checked, as it is affecting everyday life, I agreed to wear a mask, hoping I could plead with patient advocate once I got upstairs. 

I put it on, got on the elevator, which had this sign which said ‘Face coverings are a personal choice”…

VA health clinic tells disabled vet: 'Wear a mask or you can't come in, we don't care about your disability.'

…and went to the 3rd floor, to find numerous signs posted that said “Do Not Remove Your Mask In the Clinic”. So much for personal choice!

VA health clinic tells disabled vet: 'Wear a mask or you can't come in, we don't care about your disability.'

By this time, the anxiety of wearing that mask was starting to climb. I went to check in, only to find out that I was a day early. 

The lady behind the counter sat quietly as I burst into tears and walked to the elevator.

I got home, and couldn’t calm down, realizing that I have to go through this all over again 24 hours later. 

I checked the VA website. They do inform veterans that they must wear a mask unless they have on an oxygen mask. No other provisions are made. 

VA health clinic tells disabled vet: 'Wear a mask or you can't come in, we don't care about your disability.'
VA website screenshot

I reached out to my Congressman’s office for assistance. They won’t be able to do anything before 2 PM today. 

According to Poynter.org: 

The National Law Review warned that businesses that exclude non-face-mask-wearing customers who claim a disability have to reach a pretty high legal bar:

The ADA permits a retailer to deny goods or services to an individual with a disability if their presence would result in a ‘direct threat’ to the health and safety of others, but only when this threat cannot be eliminated by modifying existing policies, practices or procedures or permitting another type of accommodation. Whether a customer poses direct threat is an individualized, fact-sensitive inquiry. If a business does not have a clear policy of turning away customers who refuse to wear face masks, and turns away an individual for that reason, the business must be prepared to identify how/why that individual’s specific, observable, condition/behaviors made them a “direct threat”.

So, what would that ‘direct threat’ look like? The ADA says that a direct threat is ‘a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies.’

It might be difficult to deny service to a person who does not have COVID-19 symptoms. The Law Review said:For example, if the person exhibited generally recognized symptoms of COVID-19 (such as aggressive coughing compounded with profuse sweating or visible difficulty breathing), refusal of service without a mask on an individualized basis may be justifiable.

Conversely, a business could be hard-pressed to successfully argue that a customer without a face mask posed a ‘direct threat’ if he or she was asymptomatic or if there was some form of accommodation that would have allowed the person to be served (e.g., allowing someone to wear a scarf instead of a mask). Upon refusing service on ‘direct threat’ grounds, the store should contemporaneously document its actions and justifications in the event their decision is later challenged.”

Rest assured of a couple of things. I understand that a VA clinic is not a retailer or a business. But they are still offering a service in a publicly accessible area. I am part of the demographic that they serve and I do fall into the protected class for ADA compliance. 

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As I went through a pre-screening, and show no signs of COVID-related symptoms, I posed no direct threat to anyone’s health or safety. I could easily argue that wearing a mask was a bigger threat to than not wearing was to anyone else. 

Please note: I will be addressing this issue with the VA through my Congressman, and if need be through my senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. 

Just moments ago, I received an email from someone with Congressman Kevin Brady’s office. It contained a link to the information I needed to confirm that the clinic was, in fact, violating the ADA. 

In part, the website stated: 

Is there a reason a person might not be able to wear a face mask?

The CDC states that a person who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the face mask without assistance should not wear a face mask or cloth face covering.

Examples of a person with a disability who might not be able to wear a face mask.

  • Individuals with respiratory disabilities such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or cystic fibrosis may not be able to wear a face mask because of difficulty in or impaired breathing. People with respiratory disabilities should consult their own medical professional for advice about using face masks. The CDC also states that anyone who has trouble breathing should not wear a face mask.
  • People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, or claustrophobia (an abnormal fear of being in enclosed or narrow places) may feel afraid or terrified when wearing a face mask. These individuals may not be able to stay calm or function when wearing a face mask.
  • Some people with autism are sensitive to touch and texture. Covering the nose and mouth with fabric can cause sensory overload, feelings of panic, and extreme anxiety.
  • A person who has cerebral palsy may have difficulty moving the small muscles in the hands, wrists, or fingers. Due to her limited mobility,  she may not be able to tie the strings or put the elastic loops of a face mask over the ears. This means that the individual may not be able to put on or remove a face mask without assistance.

I provided that information to Catrina, the patient advocate at the clinic. She assured me that she would contact the regional director to get the conversation started at a state and national level to ensure that no other VA locations were discriminating against veteran with disability. 

She was very kind, and professional. She listened intently. She informed me that they were under strict guidance that NO ONE comes in the clinic without a mask. But, she also said that she understands my concerns and knows that I am correct that they cannot discriminate or turn patients away because of a particular disability, unless it poses a direct threat to others. 

Long story short, I will still be running this situation through my congressional reps since I cannot be the only veteran who has faced this. But, if you are a veteran diagnosed with PTSD and it prevents you from wearing a mask, do not let the hospital or the clinics tell you that you cannot, under any circumstances, enter the facility with a mask, so long as you clear the pre-screen and are not presenting symptoms associated with COVID-19. 

Hopefully the work I have done in the past 36 will have an effect on my brothers and sisters in the veteran community who may have to fight this same battle. 

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