Accommodations May Be Needed for Hearing-Impaired Job Applicants and Employees

Q: I understand that employers may be required to offer reasonable accommodations to hearing-impaired applicants and employees. When are accommodations required?  What kind of accommodations must employers offer?

A: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment. In the context of a job application, an accommodation is considered to be reasonable if it enables an applicant with a disability to have an equal opportunity to apply for and be considered for a job.  In the context of employment, an accommodation is considered to be reasonable if it enables an employee to perform the essential functions of the position.

Employers should be aware of the importance of being alert to the need for potential accommodations, and following through on such accommodations in the case of hearing-impaired applicants and employees. In the application stage, employers may become aware that an applicant has a disability through voluntary disclosure, or because it is obvious, such as when the applicant uses a service to respond to telephone inquiries, or requests a sign language interpreter for an interview.  Upon obtaining such knowledge, employers should engage in the interactive process to inquire whether the applicant needs a reasonable accommodation for the application process.

It is important to separate the accommodations needed for the application process from those that may be needed to perform the job. Employers should not assume that the accommodation needed for the application process will be the same as the accommodation needed for the job.  Conversely, an individual may not need an accommodation for the application process, but may need one for the job itself.

Possible accommodations for hearing-impaired applicants during the application process may include a sign language interpreter and providing information in written rather than oral form. The same alteration of the way information is provided during the application process can constitute an accommodation for the job itself.  Other potential accommodations could include captioned or text telephones and voice recognition software.  Some accommodations may be needed only occasionally – for example, a deaf employee who can lip-read may be able to rely on lip-reading in his day-to-day communications, but may require a sign language interpreter for group meetings.

Employers are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation if the employee is not a qualified individual with a disability, if the employer and employee are not able to identify a reasonable accommodation that would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, or if the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the company.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has recently focused its attention on alleged failures to accommodate hearing-impaired individuals, particularly during the employment application process. Whether the ability to hear is an essential function of a job (and thus, whether applicant or employee could perform the job with a reasonable accommodation) is a fact-specific inquiry.  For example, courts have held that the ability to hear audible alarms is an essential function under certain circumstances.  Courts have also held that strong verbal communication is an essential function of some jobs, and that an employee’s use of non-verbal modes of communication is not a reasonable accommodation of that function.

Employers should ensure that managers and human resources personnel are properly trained to identify situations where potential accommodations for deaf applicants or employees may be needed, and that such personnel understand how the accommodation process works.

Jessica Rothenberg

When is Enough, Enough? Limiting Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA

Q: How long does an employer have to accommodate an employee’s disability in the form of a leave of absence?

A: The law in most jurisdictions is unclear. In fact, in most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, there is no bright line rule as to the length of leave time that is reasonable under the ADA.  Typically courts look at the surrounding circumstances to determine whether the amount of time off is a “reasonable accommodation” and have held that leaves longer than three months were required in some circumstances as a reasonable accommodation.

Given this lack of certainty, employers are left with the daunting task of determining how much leave is “reasonable,” thus forcing many employers to typically extend leaves beyond what they may believe is proper.  To add to the uncertainty, the EEOC, which is the employee’s first pit stop in bringing an ADA claim, has taken the position that a two-to-three month leave, or longer may be reasonable.  Moreover, state laws protecting disabled individuals, such, for example, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, may provide for even greater protections to the employee.

A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, however, has provided some concrete direction, at least to employers with employees located in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Indiana, regarding the amount of leave required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In that case, the Court held that a multi-month leave likely was not required as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the employee brought a lawsuit after the employer terminated his employment rather than give him two to three months of additional leave to recuperate from back surgery after he had used up his Family and Medical Leave Act allotment.  The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, stated that the ADA is “not a medical leave entitlement” and specifically held that “a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”  In particular, the Court held that a such a multi-month leave cannot be a reasonable accommodation because a reasonable accommodation allows a disabled employee to work and perform the essential functions of the position, which the employee in this case could not do, thus disqualifying him from the protections of the ADA.  The Court noted however, that a short leave of absence—say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be a reasonable accommodation.  Although the Severson case provides support for the position that extended, multi-month leaves of absence may not be required under the ADA, employers should not take it as a green light to reject all requests for a leave of absence under the ADA.

The Severson case is binding law only in the Seventh Circuit.  It remains to be seen whether other courts will follow the Seventh Circuit’s lead in limiting the amount of leave that is considered to be “reasonable.” Until that occurs, however, employers should tread lightly when making these decisions and consider all of the risks and benefits associated with rejecting a leave request.

Kali T. Wellington-James