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May 4th, 2005 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Feeling MS-cast

Police number-cruncher with multiple sclerosis wants to keep working; bosses say he can't.

     
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Laid-off Police Bureau crime analyst Joe Midgett shows how he can still work on a computer despite multiple sclerosis.
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
Joe Midgett wishes he were still plotting Police Bureau maps and calculating crime statistics at his desk on the 15th floor of the Justice Center downtown.

Instead, he is on medical layoff from his job as a crime analyst and stuck in the kitchen of his home near Multnomah Village. Sitting in a wheelchair, his body slumps to the right and his left hand lies useless and crumpled in his lap. His wife must put on his glasses for him. But despite advanced multiple sclerosis, Midgett thinks he can still work. To prove it, he nudges the joystick and pilots into his home office.

With his hands lying still on his lap, Midgett stares at the computer screen, and as he moves his head, windows pop open and rearrange. Web pages load and words materialize behind a blinking cursor. Midgett, 51, guides these actions with a HeadMouse: an infrared beam atop the monitor that reflects off a shiny dot on Midgett's glasses. When he pauses for four-tenths of a second, the computer performs a single click of the mouse. So far, he has written 180 pages of his memoir using voice-recognition software.

Nonetheless, Midgett's supervisors remain convinced that the 20-year bureau veteran can't meet the demands of a desk job based mostly on computer work. Midgett was laid off from his $60,000-a-year post at the division of Planning and Support in January after almost two years of fighting over whether he could do his job. Midgett thinks division director Jane Braaten looked at him and saw a wheelchair, not a worker.

"It's a systematic failure of the Police Bureau not wanting to deal with people who have disabilities," he says.

Because of the ongoing investigation into Midgett's Internal Affairs complaint against his supervisors, police spokesman Brian Schmautz says brass will not discuss the layoff. Midgett has, however, collected a thick stack of documents that confirm his story's major turning points.

He says his problems started when he requested a HeadMouse in April 2003, nearly 17 years after his MS diagnosis. Analysts in his former unit spend most of their time at computers, tracking crime trends and preparing maps for presentations and research.

Midgett says his supervisors rejected his request and instead ordered an evaluation of his ability to do his job. In October 2003, according to bureau documents, a contractor concluded Midgett could not meet expectations, even with special equipment. If Midgett had an assistant, the report determined, he might be able to continue working.

Midgett says Braaten told him he'd have to find, on his own, the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to hire a full-time assistant.

He says performance reviews from the late '90s-after he lost use of his left hand and after he went into a wheelchair-showed he could meet the obligations of his job.

Four of Midgett's co-workers wrote Assistant Chief Bruce Prunk in a Feb. 18, 2004, memo that Midgett made a vital contribution and that his requests for help-like moving maps from plotters-were no more inconvenient than other colleagues' needs.

"[W]ithout Joe's ability and expertise, many assignments would either not be accomplished in a timely manner, or done as well," they wrote. The letter was signed by Officer Kurt Nelson; Wendy Lin-Kelly, a crime analyst; Officer Al Cardwell; and an intern, Kate Wilson.

"All he ever did was come into work and do his job," says Lin-Kelly, now a Multnomah County Sheriff's Office analyst. "I could not possibly guess why on earth somebody would target somebody like that."

In May 2004, the state office of Vocational Rehabilitation Services agreed to pay for half the $1,000 cost of a HeadMouse. But even with the device, according to a June letter to Midgett from Chief Derrick Foxworth, supervisors still believed Midgett was not performing up to par. A month later, another evaluation concluded more decisively than the first that Midgett's "vocational prognosis [was] poor."

Midgett was placed on paid administrative leave in June. A day later, he received notice that an Internal Affairs complaint had been filed against him and three co-workers (including two who had signed a letter supporting him) for having watched Reservoir Dogs in a break room several months earlier.

Once Midgett receives decisions on his complaint with the bureau, and an Americans with Disabilities Act grievance filed with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, he will explore a possible lawsuit against the Police Bureau.

"I also blame the bureau and the city," he says, "because they let a middle manager who doesn't like to take no from anybody put them in a very tenuous situation."

 
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