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Pa. man with hearing aids sues over police denial

June 16, 2010

BELLEFONTE, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania man with hearing loss and eager to pursue a career in law enforcement filed a federal lawsuit against the state police over guidelines that he says exclude qualified candidates who need hearing aids.

Bill Furman’s lawyers filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania asking that the rule forbidding the use of hearing aids in tests needed for certification be changed so that Furman has the opportunity to become a municipal police officer.

State police oversee the certification process for all officers in Pennsylvania.

Furman, the son of a police officer, calls it a dream to become an officer. The 39-year-old from Boalsburg has used hearing aids since he was 4.

He currently works as a parking officer in Bellefonte and as a Centre County constable, an elected position that involves serving papers and transporting prisoners. He was set to go to a police training academy last year when he said he was told he couldn’t because he had passed an earlier hearing test with the help of hearing aids.

When Furman pressed, he was told he could proceed if could pass all tests, including the hearing test, without his hearing aids, said the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, which filed the suit for Furman.

His lawyer, Carol Horowitz, noted that Furman wasn’t being rejected by a potential employer but was “turned away from becoming eligible for the certification.” She also pointed out that guidelines allow for the use of glasses to meet vision requirements.

“It’s an enhancement I have with the hearing aids,” Furman told The Associated Press. “It does not make me better than you, but does it make me normal? Yeah, it’s no different than some people who wear corrective lenses.”

Lt. Myra Taylor, a state police spokeswoman, said agency lawyers would review the lawsuit and declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Furman, who has spent four years as a parking officer, started researching in 2007 when he discovered the no-hearing-aid rule. He said he initially tried to get lawmakers to change the guidelines but failed. He decided in 2009 to go through with the application process anyway.

“I would rather try and fail than to fail trying at all,” Furman said, calling the lawsuit his last resort.

It’s unclear how many other states or municipalities have similar guidelines, said Lisa Hamlin, director of public policy and state development for the Bethesda, Md.-based Hearing Loss Association of America.

Her organization worked on a case in which a U.S. Marshals Service security officer unsuccessfully sued his employer in connection with a rule banning the use of hearing aids during a test.

Marshals spokeswoman Carolyn Gwathmey said a recent policy change allowed an applicant with a hearing aid to be hired if that person met medical standards, though she was uncertain of the context behind the change.

An official with the Fraternal Order of Police’s national office in Washington said he was not aware of similar issues around the country.

In Virginia and New York, for example, wearing a hearing aid is not an automatic disqualifier for police certification. Corrinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said prospects must pass a physical, which includes a hearing test, but that applicants can wear a hearing aid during the test.

Furman was born with hearing loss in both ears, but it wasn’t discovered until he was 4 after a dog had attacked him and bit his ear. He wears digital hearing aids that fit into his ear canal and are nearly invisible.

“He has never had a hearing aid dislodge from either of his ears, and has never had a hearing aid malfunction,” the lawsuit said. His hearing aids also have a low-battery warning, and Furman said he carries a spare pair of aids with him as a backup.

Bellefonte Police Chief Shawn Weaver had high praise for Furman. He said he would hire Furman as a police officer if a court ruled favorably and he passed the required exams and training courses.

“He’s worked here for three years and I often don’t realize he has a disability,” Weaver said. “I can’t tell the difference between him and any other person that works here.”


Associated Press writers Larry O’Dell in Richmond, Va., and George Walsh in Albany, N.Y., and contributed to this report.

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