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Assess ADA disability against average ability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The ADA doesn’t cover everyone who has any kind of medical problem. Only those whose conditions substantially impair major life functions are disabled within the meaning of the law.

That’s why, before accepting an employee’s disability claims, you should analyze whether the employee really is disabled and therefore entitled to ADA protection. Even something like complete deafness in one ear may not be enough to make an employee disabled.

Recent case: Christine worked as a copy editor at the Reading Eagle newspaper for many years. She underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor, and the operation left her completely deaf in one ear.

When the Eagle, like many other papers, decided it needed to downsize its staff, it came up with a reduction in force plan that included points for performance evaluations and other factors. Christine had the lowest overall performance scores and was one of three employees laid off.

She sued, alleging she had been targeted for termination because she is disabled. But the newspaper argued she isn’t really disabled; therefore it couldn’t have discriminated against her for that reason.

The court agreed. While Chris­­tine had testified that she had trouble hearing in a busy newsroom, that wasn’t enough to make her disabled. Lots of people can’t hear above the typical din a newsroom produces, the court concluded. Plus, the newspaper clearly used objective factors to decide who would stay and who would go. Christine’s case was tossed out. (Mengel v. Reading Eagle Company, No. 11-6151, ED PA, 2013)

Final note: Remember, whether an individual is disabled depends on a comparison against an average, nondisabled person’s abilities to perform the same function. If the average editor can’t hear herself think in a newsroom, then the partially deaf person isn’t any worse off.

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