Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hearing-impaired IBM employee received reasonable accommodation under ADA

The Court of Appeals takes a look at the Americans with Disabilities Act in a case against IBM, holding that a hearing impaired employee received a reasonable accommodation from his employer, including transcripts of intranet videos and access to American Sign Language interpreters for intranet content and live meetings,

The case is Noll v. International Business Machines, decided on May 21. Noll worked in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but IBM is a huge corporation for which internal communication were broadcast over a company-wide intranet. Noll asked for captioning of certain intranet videos or transcripts of audio files. Instead, as noted above, IBM gave him transcripts and access to ASL interpreters. Noll said these alternatives were not good enough it was "confusing and tiring" to look back and forth between the video and the ASL interpreter. Also, it sometimes took five days or longer for transcripts to be made available to Noll, and links to the transcripts were sometimes broken.

The question here is not whether IBM ignored Noll's requests. Instead, we ask if IBM's accommodations were reasonable as a matter of law. This case was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, which means the trial court said there was no factual issue for the jury and the case could be decided in favor of IBM on a cold record. Over Judge Sack's dissent, the Court of Appeals (Jacobs and Droney) says the accommodations were reasonable.

As the Second Circuit notes, "A reasonable accommodation is one that 'enables an individual with a disability who is qualified to perform the essential functions of that position ... or to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.'" This derives from the extensive regulations interpreting the ADA. While Noll argues that immediate access to all video and audio postings in the intranet is a benefit or privilege of employment, the real question is whether the accommodations were effective. While access to transcripts were subject to a five day delays, "there is no dispute that the ASL interpreters were available to Noll whenever he wished to view a video or access an audio file, and that they translated in real-time."

In addition, while Noll says the ASL interpreters were not as effective as captioning and that it was tiresome to watch the sign language interpreter and the screen, that objection does not entitle him to a jury trial. "This disadvantage does not render interpretive services ineffective. A person who is deaf necessarily receives auditory information from other senses (principally sight); so it can be expected that many accommodations of deafness -- ASL interpretive services as well as captioning -- will tax visual attention to some degree. An accommodation for deafness therefore cannot be rendered ineffective by the need to divide visual attention, without more."

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