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Accommodate disabled workers, but don’t accept mediocre job performance

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Performance Reviews

Yes, employers must reasonably accom­modate employees with disabilities. But that doesn’t mean they have to provide a perfect workplace—or tolerate subpar performance.

Instead, make the accommodations that are reasonable. If the employee still can’t perform her job’s essential functions, you can terminate her. That’s true even if a failed accommodation contributed to her poor performance—as long as you would have terminated a nondisabled employee who made the same mistakes.

Recent case: Jessica Whitfield is blind in one eye and has cerebral palsy. She successfully worked for a state agency, and then transferred to another agency. That’s where she ran into problems.

Whitfield’s new job required a six-month probationary period. Her work involved answering phones, filing forms, preparing mailings and entering information on a computer. Before she took the job, she explained that she was a slow typist. Her new supervisor—who also had medical problems—told Whitfield she would arrange for another employee to do most of the typing.

Before Whitfield’s first day at work, the agency set up a desktop printer and scanner so she would not have to walk far. She also received a large monitor. Soon after beginning work, Whitfield requested an ergonomic evaluation of her workspace, which was scheduled.

Also soon after beginning work, Whitfield began having problems. She made serious spelling and grammar mistakes when entering information into the computer system. She was told to correct the problems and that she needed to write in complete sentences. To this request, she responded, “sorry about my Grammar and Eng­lish never have done complete sentences very well Thanks.”

Whitfield also made mistakes enter­ing ZIP codes on letters and filing documents in alphabetical order. Whit­­field was offered training sessions, but declined to participate.

Finally, the agency fired Whitfield for poor performance. She sued, alleg­ing disability discrimination and fail­ure to accommodate her disability. She blamed some of her mistakes on the fact that her large monitor could not be placed directly in front of her because of the shape of her cubicle.

The court tossed out her case. It said that even if some of her mistakes could be blamed on monitor placement, the rest had nothing to do with accommodations. Making sure letters had ZIP codes on the envelopes and writing in complete sentences were un­related to her disability or her accommodations. (Whitfield v. Ten­nes­see, et al., No. 09-6488, 6th Cir., 2011)

Final note: Disabled employees don’t get a pass on everything. They are entitled to those reasonable accommodations that allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. But they do have to perform the essential functions.

In this case, it was obvious that Whitfield was disabled, but also that she wasn’t capable of doing the job even with accommodations.

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