Issues with Accommodating Disabilities | DCR Workforce Blog

Issues with Accommodating Disabilities

National Disability Employment Awareness Month.October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. As the month comes to a close, it is fitting that we review some recent landmark cases which involve the issue of disability accommodation in the workplaces.

  • The first is the case of a hospital employee who went missing from duty for four hours. He faced termination for dereliction of duty and ‘theft of time’. When called in by the Human Resources (HR) department to finalize his termination, the employee disclosed that he suffers from bipolar disorder. He expected the employer to accept the explanation and condone his absence as an accommodation. The management and HR team refused to accept the explanation and request for accommodation, which came literally at the last moment. When the employee sued claiming discriminatory discharge, the court dismissed the claim because the employee had failed to provide adequate advance notice of his disability to the employer.
  • The second case involves FedEx Ground which employs a significant number of hearing-impaired persons as handlers in its package sorting and moving facilities. The company’s policy states that it is ‘committed to providing fair and equal to all employees, including reasonable, individualized accommodations; with every opportunity to succeed in their careers’. Unfortunately, in a recently filed class action lawsuit, The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged FedEx Ground with 19 counts of failure to provide the required accommodation to this very set of workers! The EEOC’s list of failures includes:
  • An absence of American Sign Language interpretation or closed-captioning training videos during new hire orientation training, tours of the facilities, staff meetings and safety meetings.
  • The use of tools which ‘beep’ signals to indicate status, but cannot be heard by these workers.
  • Not providing equipment which vibrates or flashes lights.

The EEOC contends that a failure to provide these accommodations led to the hearing impaired workers being marginalized at the workplace, being deprived of adequate information required for effective performance on the job. Of course, FedEx Ground has every intention of contesting this allegation.

Both of these cases serve to bring an important insight to the rest of us. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws aim to enable people with disabilities to make significant contributions at work by requiring employers to accommodate the disabilities of employees – and applicants – when possible. Employers must understand what constitutes a “qualified worker”, a legally recognized disability, and “reasonable accommodation”. While the government is fairly clear in terms of legally recognized disability, issues arise when the employer and worker disagree on the notion of reasonable accommodation. Accommodating a worker means providing assistance or making changes in the job or workplace that will enable the worker to do the job. Workers needing such accommodations must inform the company of the disability and request a reasonable accommodation. When informed of a disability, the company must engage in a discussion with the worker regarding the kinds of accommodations that would be effective and practical. Employers can reject proposed accommodations that cause “undue hardship”. Again, this is a term subject to interpretation.

If you’re unsure whether you must provide a disabled employee with a specific accommodation, you might want to get some legal help. Investing in a little up front planning and research in these matters could help employers avoid the unnecessary effort and expense involved in contesting protracted lawsuits.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.