Can we make a deaf employee and his boss learn sign language?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Q. Our company recently hired a deaf employee who communicates exclusively by written notes. We are finding that this process is time consuming and adversely affects productivity. May we require that both the deaf worker and his supervisor learn sign language and terminate their employment if they refuse?

A. With regard to your supervisor, the answer is relatively straightforward. Employers generally have the right to require that employees—especially managers—acquire the skills the employer believes are necessary to effectively perform the functions of the job.

Requiring the deaf worker to learn sign language, on the other hand, may lead to legal liability.

The ADA requires employers to reasonably accommodate qualified individuals with disabilities. Allowing a deaf worker to write notes to communicate in the workplace will generally be considered to be a reasonable accom­modation (unless an “undue hardship” is created).

The EEOC has concluded that employers may not require deaf workers to learn sign language. In reaching this determination, the federal agency noted that, “An employer could not refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation, such as communicating through the use of notes, for an individual who is deaf simply because the employer believes the individual should have learned sign language. Of course, a deaf person who does not know sign language might be unqualified for a position, if communicating through the use of notes would not be effective or would pose an undue hardship, and if there are no other effective accommodations available.”

Thus, you may take adverse employment action against your deaf worker for refusing to learn sign language only if his failure to do so makes him unqualified for the job or if allowing him to communicate by notes would cause your company to experience an undue hardship.

In deciding how to react, it is important to note that a high burden of proof probably will be imposed on an employer that attempts to assert either of these defenses in similar circumstances.

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