Here’s an important reminder to pass along to managers and supervisors: Simply dismissing a disabled employee’s request for accommodations is folly unless it is crystal clear that no accommodation is possible.
That’s because the ADA requires an interactive accommodations process in which the employee can suggest ways that will allow him to perform the essential functions of his job based on his individual circumstances.
Recent case: William Eldredge was a firefighter for the St. Paul Fire Department who suffers from Stargardt’s Disease Macular Dystrophy (SDMD). The condition meant he had a small blind spot in the center of his field of vision.
Still, he was able to perform his firefighter job despite the SDMD. However, he was unable to read small print without a magnifying glass and could not drive at night.
All that changed when the fire department got a grant to conduct routine medical screenings. Eldredge was asked to take a vision test using a piece of equipment he had experienced trouble with before. He refused. He was then assigned to light-duty work training other firefighters.
Eldredge requested transfer back to full duty and said he needed reasonable accommodations. He suggested being permitted to use the magnifying glass for reading small print and being exempt from driving duty.
The fire department refused, claiming instead that Eldredge’s condition rendered him unsafe as a firefighter. It also said that no accommodations were possible because the job description required firefighters be capable of reading small print on medications and driving an ambulance or firetruck.
When Eldredge was eventually terminated, he sued, alleging failure to accommodate. He said that by not exploring his true limitations and offering possible accommodations, the fire department had violated the ADA.
The court said the case should go to trial and faulted the fire department for not dealing with Eldredge as an individual with a disability. (Eldredge v. City of St. Paul, et al., No. 09-2018, DC MN, 2011)