Blind substitute teacher suing Lakota, Fairfield for discrimination will take case to jury

CINCINNATI -- A blind substitute teacher who is suing Lakota and Fairfield school districts for disability discrimination will take his case to a jury in January.

Kyle Conley, who has been totally blind since birth, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in November 2016 after the two school districts refused to accept him as a substitute teacher.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott refused the school system’s motion to dismiss the case. It is set for trial Jan. 7.

He accuses Lakota and Fairfield schools of violating both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Ohio state law.

At issue is whether a blind teacher is qualified for a substitute teaching position, or if Conley must be forced to accept the help of a sighted aide.

Conley insists that he can perform the essential functions of the job with only minimal accommodations – such as receiving lesson plans in advance so he can translate them using Braille, and receiving help in the classroom on the first day.

When Conley arrives at a school building, he walks around to learn the layout of the building, including the location of the exits and the restrooms, sometimes with the help of a secretary. He has received informal training on handling a school lockdown and participated in school fire drills, according to court documents.

He believes that he does not need the help of a sighted aide in the classroom and that it would interfere with his ability to be a teacher.

But Fairfield and Lakota school leaders say Conley can’t perform essential functions of the job, such as keeping class order and controlling behavior. They say he can’t protect school property or students, and raised concerns about what would happen during a school lockdown or if a student had a weapon.

“He would not know if certain types of misbehavior in the classroom occurred – for example, if a student had a weapon, violated the dress code, used nonverbal profanity, or engaged in cheating – unless another student told him,” according to court documents.

Conley can perceive light versus darkness, but he cannot see images at all.

He graduated from Fairfield High School in 2008, then from Wright State University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in music.

He holds teaching licenses for music in Ohio and West Virginia. He also held a one-year Ohio substitute teacher license that enabled him to teach other subjects for the 2014-2015 school year.

In September 2014, Conley signed up to substitute teach at Fairfield middle and high schools. But a teacher complained that Conley could not properly administer a test for her, and worried how he would handle a scheduled fire drill. So school leaders ultimately blocked him from substitute teaching at Fairfield.

Conley also substituted for three half-days at Lakota schools in September 2014. A principal at Cherokee Elementary assigned an aide to his classroom because she worried Conley wouldn’t be able to see if students with serious allergies suffered a reaction, according to court documents.

Afterward, school leaders blocked Conley from substitute teaching at Lakota schools.

Conley was also blocked from teaching at Ross schools, after one boy in his class fell to the ground after “shuffling” with another boy who pulled on his backpack,” according to court documents.

But Conley resolved his dispute with Ross and is eligible to teach there again, according to court documents.

Conley also served as a substitute teacher in Hamilton from 2014 to 2016, but decided he could no longer work there because the schools have more student discipline issues and he was concerned for his safety, according to court documents.

In 2016 and 2017, Conley worked as a long-term substitute teaching music at a West Virginia high school.

He returned to Ohio the following year, where he substitute taught at Edgewood, Monroe and Ross school districts. He also had a part-time position teaching music at an Owensville school.

“Conley has put forward sufficient evidence supporting his argument that he can perform the essential functions of a substitute teacher in grades five through twelve without a sighted aide to warrant a jury trial on the disability discrimination claim,” Dlott wrote in her October 15 order allowing the case to go to a jury.

Dlott also ordered that Conley’s expert witness, Virginia Rhodes, who served on the Cincinnati Public School Board of Education for eight years, will be allowed to testify at the January trial.

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