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Warn bosses: Preconceived notions about disability can violate the ADA

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

Some conditions aren’t serious enough to constitute disabilities, but some supervisors wrongly assume they do. That’s a major problem: By assuming a condition is disabling, they’re “regarding” the employee as disabled—something the ADA prohibits. Thus, the ADA protects even employees who aren’t disabled.

Recent case: Sherry Kaw has a condition called vasovagal syncope, which causes her to faint occasionally. Kaw worked as a one-on-one aide to a disabled student at a public school. She fainted twice over two years.

The school principal requested that she stay home until she could undergo more medical tests. Then he fired her, fearing she might faint again.

She sued, alleging disability discrimination.

The trial court said she was not actually disabled because fainting twice in two years simply doesn’t substantially impair a major life function. However, the judge also concluded that she deserved a jury trial because her supervisor regarded her condition as disabling by sending her home and then firing because he was afraid she might faint again. (Kaw v. School District of Hillsborough County, No. 8:07-CV-2222, MD FL, 2009)

Final note: The school district will now try to persuade the jury that Kaw is a danger to herself or others. But the judge said that it seemed unlikely that argument would win over a jury, since a school environment is always staffed with adults who could help manage a medical incident.

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