Nicholas Keith has been deaf since birth. He is also, apparently, a pretty good swimmer. He successfully completed the Oakland County, Michigan, lifeguard training course with the assistance of sign language interpreter to communicate instructions. The county rescinded its conditional job offer for a lifeguard position after Keith's pre-employment physical. The examining doctor approved Keith's employment as a lifeguard if his deafness was "constantly accommodated." Without any consultation with Keith, the county unsuccessfully brainstormed possible accommodations, and, ultimately, rescinded the job offer.
In Keith v. Oakland County (1/10/13) [pdf], the 6th Circuit reversed the district court's order dismissing Keith's disability discrimination lawsuit. The court relied upon the ADA's requirement for an "individualized inquiry in determining whether an [employee's or applicant's] disability or other condition disqualifies him from a particular position."
In this case, the county made no individualized inquiry.
After Dr. Work entered the examination room and briefly reviewed Keith's file, he declared, "He's deaf; he can't be a lifeguard." Dr. Work made no effort to determine whether, despite his deafness, Keith could nonetheless perform the essential functions of the position, either with or without reasonable accommodation. Indeed, Dr. Work has no education, training, or experience in assessing the ability of deaf individuals to work as lifeguards. Dr. Work's cursory medical examination is precisely the type that the ADA was designed to prohibit.
What is the takeaway for employers? If you are dealing with disabled applicants or employees, you cannot make the employment decision in a vacuum. You must act based on the actual disability and its effect on the particular individual's ability to perform the job. You should consider:
- the individual's personal characteristics;
- the actual medical condition; and
- the effect, if any, the condition may have on the ability to perform the specific job in question.
Most importantly, you should include the individual in the assessment. No one is a better judge of one's real-world abilities and limitations than the individual himself or herself.
If you failing to engage in this individualized inquiry, it will look like you are making the employment decision based on stereotypes and generalizations, which the ADA is supposed to rid from the workplace. That perception will not bode well for your defense of an ADA lawsuit.