- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against Honolulu-based Opportunities and Resources, Inc. and ORI Anuenue Hale, Inc., a work placement agency for individuals with disabilities, alleging the organization violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it "routinely refused" to provide sign language interpreters to deaf employees.
- Several deaf employees repeatedly requested sign language interpreters for staff meetings, EEOC said. Rather than provide the accommodation, ORI provided written notes and handouts and asked a deaf employee to interpret for other deaf employees, the lawsuit alleged. This approach deprived deaf employees from fully participating in the meetings and from equal access to important work-related information, EEOC said.
- "Employers cannot, on their own, decide what accommodations will meet the needs of an employee," Raymond Griffin, Jr., director of the EEOC's Honolulu office, said of the case. "Employers have an obligation to engage employees in the interactive process to find effective accommodations."
According to the ADA, employers have a responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities who request them. When an employee discloses the need for a particular disability-related accommodation, they trigger the beginning of the "interactive process," during which the employer and employee work together to find a reasonable accommodation.
Failing to properly engage in the interactive process is often where employers run afoul of the ADA, sources previously told HR Dive. During a recent EEOC Excel panel on service animals in the workplace, one panelist pointed out that if an organization cannot accommodate the employee in the way the employee prefers — such as by bringing a service miniature horse into the office, as in the example the panelist was discussing — the organization has an obligation to re-engage in the interactive process until the employee's needs are met.
The engagement of sign language interpreters to assist deaf employees or applicants is one of the most common forms of reasonable accommodation, but failing to provide an interpreter still routinely gets companies in trouble. Walmart has been sued by the EEOC multiple times for failure to provide an interpreter.
Interpreters are not the only form of accommodation for deaf individuals and are not always required, but they are often considered reasonable. While ORI provided other accommodations, the EEOC case will likely hinge on the effectiveness of those accommodations; EEOC argues that their use "denied the benefits and privileges of employment" to the deaf employees in need of accommodation by excluding them from full participation in workplace meetings.
"Providing an ineffective accommodation is akin to failing to provide an accommodation at all," Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles District, which includes Hawaii in its jurisdiction, commented on the case.
Employers can help themselves avoid an ADA suit by taking advantage of the interactive process to check in with employees on how their accommodations are working and to keep looking for an effective solution when attempted accommodations fail.