Supervisors and HR professionals must avoid stereotyping employees who have medical problems and never make assumptions about workers’ abilities to perform the job. Making uninformed comments about physical ailments is a quick way to land in court.
That’s because the ADA protects not only people with actual disabilities but also those whom you “regard as being disabled.” So if you treat an employee as being disabled, you must offer that person reasonable work accommodations, as the law requires.
Train your supervisors to stick to an individual’s medical facts: Don’t rely on generalizations about the “typical person” with, say, diabetes, arthritis or epilepsy. You must assess a person’s individual condition and possible accommodations on a case-by-case basis. When on the fence over whether an employee is officially “disabled” under the ADA, err on the side of caution: Try to accommodate the request.
Recent case: Edwin Taylor returned to work as a forklift operator and truck driver after his employer told him to stay home for 18 months when he had two seizures. As it turned out later, his seizures were due to a nutritional supplement he was taking.
Taylor underwent extensive testing for epilepsy. Several doctors came to different conclusions, but the experts hired by his employer at first wouldn’t clear him to return. When Taylor complained through his union, managers sent an e-mail expressing their fears that he might pose a danger: “Suppose a seizure would occur and [he’d] fall into the path of a forklift [or] fall from the dock to the pavement?”
Taylor sued, and a jury awarded him $158,000 in back pay and $290,000 in attorneys’ fees. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said the company regarded Taylor as disabled when he wasn’t, and it used that assumption to keep him off work. (Taylor v. USF-Red Star Express, No. 05-3081, 3rd Cir., 2006)