Last Hired, First Fired

Here's a sobering story as we approach the anniversary of the ADA:

A few years ago I assisted someone in finding a job restocking shelves during graveyard hours. The person had many years of experience working for a major chain of grocery stores but, unfortunately, the chain didn't exist in Washington and we needed to find a new employer.


Later, we met with the store's manager who confirmed, "Sorry, this person is deaf, we can't hire them."Based on the individual's résumé and impression in our meeting, I thought it would be a piece of cake to find a job. A few weeks later, much to my surprise, the person was denied an ideal position simply because of deafness.

The short version of this story is we took this up the ladder with the human resources supervisor who later apologized and offered the job. As is true with many employers, it was simply a manager failing to apply the company's written policy as prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Given the ADA was enacted 20 years ago, it's disappointing to see there are still people who remain unaware of what the law requires in providing an equal opportunity.

Many portions of the ADA revolve around the key phrase of, "reasonable accommodation." However, I've noticed that few in the business world have a working knowledge of what that really means. There is a great deal of confusion, myths and fear of what the ADA requires in accommodating persons of disability. To clarify, I'd like to cover what a reasonable accommodation is, and what it is not.

With any job, there are essential day-to-day functions that must be performed or the person will be fired. For example, a piano player needs to be able to play the piano, and play it well. The ADA requires that qualified applicants be considered for the job if they can do the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. One of the big ongoing questions is this: How do we define "reasonable?"

Is it reasonable that someone who is deaf be allowed to use accommodations such as relay services to take a job where the primary duties require answering incoming calls? Even with an accommodation, I'd say probably no. The ADA also states that employers can take into consideration if the required accommodations create an undue burden.

For example, if a person is restricted to sedentary activity, it's not reasonable or safe to accommodate them with a position that will require frequent heavy lifting. However, on the flip side of the coin, employers are expected to make an effort in accommodating qualified applicants who can meet the job requirements.

With the case of the grocery stocker, the manager's sole concern was that someone who is deaf cannot communicate with a customer. However, customer service was not listed as an essential function, in fact, it wasn't listed anywhere in the job duties. Moreover, through various strategies such as using paper and pen, the disability barriers were eliminated. Even when accommodations are successful, there remains a great deal of reluctance in hiring those with a disability.

Frequently, qualified persons with disabilities are overlooked for promotions or positions simply because they have a disability.

Often enough, they are the last hired, and the first fired. Statistics have shown over the past five years that employers, including Washington state, have had a steady decline in the number of disabled persons included in their work force.

Today, unemployment for those with disabilities remains above 70 percent. The ADA was passed 20 years ago. Isn't it time and reasonable to give folks with disabilities a fair shake?

Stephen Roldan, a member of The Olympian's Diversity Panel, is statewide coordinator of deaf services for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. He can be reached at roldasj@dshs.wa.gov.

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