Don’t think it’s the end of the story once you have offered an ADA accommodation to a disabled employee and put it in place. Disabilities change, equipment fails and technology improves, making the accommodations process a continual one.
Here’s what you risk if you make an accommodation and walk away without ensuring the accommodation actually works or determining whether it could be better: The employee may quit in disgust and sue. Then a jury might find that you acted callously and illegally. And that can result in a large pain-and-suffering award, as happened in the following case.
Recent case: Rosalyn Olian worked for the Chicago Board of Education as a counselor. Back in the 1960s, Olian developed lymphoma and underwent aggressive radiation therapy that saved her life, but left her with impairments. Olian may have been cancer-free, but she had a great deal of trouble breathing and speaking because of the radiation damage.
While she worked as a counselor, her problems weren’t insurmountable because she was able to rest her voice between student appointments. Then the school administration decided it wanted Olian to teach classes instead. She was put in charge of four or five full classes per day. This took a toll on her breathing and voice and left her in pain. She asked for several accommodations—returning to counseling, teaching fewer classes per day or being assigned a classroom aide to help her manage students.
Instead, the school district gave her a microphone and speaker system. This helped for a while, until the system broke after just five weeks. Olian kept asking for it to be repaired, as well as for other accommodations, but none of that came.
Olian quit and sued. A jury awarded her $244,000 for her suffering. It concluded the school district had failed to make reasonable accommodations and interfered with the interactive process by ignoring Olian’s pleas for repairs and other accommodations. The judge will next calculate any lost wages. (Olian v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, No. 06-C-370, ND IL, 2009)
Final note: Here’s a better way to manage accommodations: Assign someone in HR to act as the ADA coordinator. His or her job is to make sure accommodations are working. That includes checking equipment, monitoring whether the employee is now able to perform the essential functions of her job with the accommodation and keeping up on the technology to see whether new options are available.
Finally, don’t forget that there are tax credits available for equipment and improvements that make workplaces accessible and able to accommodate disabled employees. That’s one way to pay for equipment upgrades. Plus, better equipment usually means greater productivity.
Remember, being proactive about accommodations is not only good for the disabled employee, but for the company as well. A large jury verdict inevitably leads to bad publicity. Make the choice that prevents that.
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