- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2011

When Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee spoke at a House hearing last year, she made clear the federal government needed to do more to help disabled Americans and even talked of plans to introduce legislation named after singer Stevie Wonder to help disabled schoolchildren.

But a former top aide to the Texas Democrat, said the lawmaker’s public support for the disabled was nowhere to be found in her own congressional office when it came to the aide’s vision impairment. Mona Floyd, who served as the congresswoman’s legislative director, has monocular vision. She said she was told by Mrs. Jackson Lee in a private conversation within weeks of the hearing, “I don’t care anything about your disability.”

Another time, when Ms. Floyd, a lawyer, brought up her disability, she said another staffer told her the congresswoman had said, “I don’t give a damn about her disability.”

The accusations were outlined in a sharply-worded lawsuit filed recently in federal court in Washington, which seeks unspecified pay and compensatory and punitive damages. According to the complaint, Ms. Floyd, who did not return phone messages this week for comment, received reasonable accommodations for her vision disability when she went to work for the congresswoman in August 2007. But Ms. Floyd said in the court papers, the congresswoman became dismissive when she returned in February 2010 to become Mrs. Jackson Lee’s legislative director.

“Representative Jackson Lee’s dismissive response to her staff member’s own disability proved that the representative was not a true advocate for persons with disabilities, but instead only paid lip service to that constituency,” Ms. Floyd said in her lawsuit.

A spokesman for Mrs. Jackson Lee declined to comment on the specific accusations in the lawsuit after The Washington Times provided a copy of the complaint to the congresswoman’s office last week.

“The office of U.S. Representative Jackson Lee considers internal personnel matters confidential and will not comment publicly on the allegations at this time, except to say that the office fully embraces and fully practices equal employment opportunities for all,” said Mrs. Jackson Lee’s chief of staff, Glenn Rushing.

According to the court papers, Ms. Floyd started working in the office as a fellow through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which told Mrs. Jackson Lee’s office that Ms. Floyd was vision impaired and needed special computer software and accommodations. When the software didn’t work, Ms. Floyd instead was given rest breaks and extra time to finish tasks, the lawsuit said.

Under those circumstances, Ms. Floyd said she did well and was hired on permanently as the congresswoman’s director of health policy and senior legislative assistant, the suit said. In that role, Ms. Floyd said, she personally told the congresswoman about her vision problems and helped draft legislation addressing deficiencies in the educational system for people with vision disabilities.

In December 2007, Ms. Floyd left the office for a job at a health advocacy nonprofit organization as senior director, but after a little more than two years she wanted to come back to Congress and got a job in Mrs. Jackson Lee’s office as legislative director and chief counsel, according to the suit.

Despite assurances the office again would make accommodations for her disability, Ms. Floyd said that never happened and she found herself working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. without any rest breaks, which she called “physically impossible” given her vision problems.

In the lawsuit, Ms. Floyd said that on April 26, 2010, Mrs. Jackson Lee gave her numerous reading-related assignments before adding that it shouldn’t take 10 years to finish. She left the office in September.

“The representative regularly made these types of derogatory comments about the speed of Ms. Floyd’s work, which the representative knew was a result of her vision impairment,” the lawsuit said.

In public, Mrs. Jackson Lee has advocated for the disabled. In a hearing on the Americans With Disabilities Act, she noted there were 3 million people in Texas with disabilities and she was working on legislation to help visually impaired students at elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels.

“It addresses major concerns of visually impaired Americans that were brought to our attention through meetings with organizations representing those visually impaired,” Mrs. Jackson Lee said.

She also complimented her staff and singled out Ms. Floyd.

The lawsuit was filed last month and a summons was served on Mrs. Jackson Lee’s office last week, according court papers. Ms. Floyd filed a motion to have a lawyer appointed to represent her last week, citing financial hardship in what she called a terrible job market.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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