Colorblind man battles fire officials over discrimination

June 24, 1992|By James Bock

Being colorblind, figuratively, is an antidote to prejudice.

But James F. Tucker says that being colorblind has literally made him a victim of discrimination.

A diagnosis of colorblindness is all that stands between Mr. Tucker, a 26-year-old Edgewater truck driver, and his longtime goal of becoming a professional firefighter.

Mr. Tucker passed Anne Arundel County's written and oral firefighter tests. But he failed a vision test by not being able to distinguish the colors green and red, and was rejected for the job.

Then the Maryland Human Relations Commission saw red. Arguing that the county hasn't fairly measured Mr. Tucker's ability to be a firefighter, the panel filed an employment discrimination complaint against the Anne Arundel County Fire Department and Office of Personnel. After two years of legal wrangling and no prospect of settlement, the commission has now brought the charge before an administrative law judge.

Mr. Tucker was a volunteer with the Avalon Shores Fire Company and a trained emergency medical technician for nearly five years. Now he is a state-licensed driver of trucks that carry hazardous materials.

Color vision has never been a problem for him, he says. In fact, he was unaware of any colorblindness until he took the Anne Arundel firefighter test in early 1990.

"It was kind of a disappointment when I found out, a big letdown," he said. "It was OK to do the same exact job as a volunteer, but when it came to be paid, I wasn't qualified."

"I guess I ran up against a rule, no exceptions," he said.

The Human Relations Commission is asking Anne Arundel County not only to hire Mr. Tucker and grant him back pay and interest toSeptember 1990, but also to revise its color-vision testing to include an "individualized assessment" of an applicant's ability to do a job.

Mr. Tucker failed a standard dot-matrix test for color blindness and then was sent to a specialist. He was diagnosed as having deuteranopia, a genetic defect that limits a person's ability to identify red and green hues. Mr. Tucker says he sees red and green, but in different shades than would a normally sighted person.

Lee D. Hoshall, a commission lawyer, said that under laws protecting the handicapped, Anne Arundel County must "prove there is a reasonable probability" that Mr. Tucker's partial colorblindness would pose a hazard to public safety.

But Gail Watson, an assistant Anne Arundel County attorney, said it would not be "practical" to set up a test -- beyond the existing vision exams -- to measure the effect of Mr. Tucker's colorblindness on his firefighting ability. "There's really no way you can simulate the medical emergencies that are dealt with" by firefighters, she said. "It's not a job where, if you do things right 90 percent of the time, that's acceptable. If you make a mistake 1 percent of the time, that can mean a life."

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