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Get expert advice when accommodating an employee’s learning disability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Jane Vollmert started falling behind in her workload when her employer, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WDOT), installed a new computer system. Now she's suing.

Initially, WDOT managers offered Vollmert easier work and extra training to get up to speed. But after several efforts to train the 21-year employee, she was still slower and made more errors than her co-workers. A union rep suggested WDOT get Vollmert free assistance from a specialist through the state's vocational rehab department, but her supervisor refused. Finally, WDOT gave her an ultimatum: Transfer to another unit at the same salary but with no chance at a promotion, or stay put and be fired if performance isn't up to snuff in four months. She transferred, under protest that her learning disabilities had not been accommodated.

When Vollmert sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), her employer said the law didn't protect her because she couldn't perform the essential functions of the job. A lower court agreed. But the appeals court reversed the decision, pointing to a vocational rehab expert's detailed report that said Vollmert probably could become proficient with intense, customized training.

The court said the employer "may have been well-meaning ... but its attempts to accommodate her were not reasonable because they were not tailored" to her disability. It sent the case back for further action. (Vollmert v. Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation, No. 98-3673, 7th Cir., 1999)

Advice: Providing the right accommodation for a learning disability can be much more difficult than for a physical disability. Even with your best intention to provide training and extra time, you may run afoul of the ADA.

Don't try to fly solo on this one. It's best to take your lead from experts in the field, such as doctors and vocational therapists, and listen to employees' reasonable requests. Experts, however, must provide a factual basis for their conclusions.

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