Disability accommodation: More than just 'interactive process'

Employers know how important it is to engage in the “interactive process” when a worker seeks an accommodation for a disability. A recent appeals court decision illustrates that the effectiveness of the accommodation is equally important.
The case centers around Mauricio Centeno, a clerk in the accounting department of a California UPS facility. Centeno’s deaf, and communicates chiefly though the use of the American Sign Language (ASL) system.
Although Centeno was able to fulfill most of his duties without accommodation, he requested to have an ASL interpreter present at staff meetings.
Notes weren’t sufficient
An interpreter was provided for some meetings, but not all — UPS gave Centeno written notes on the meeting agenda instead.
But Centeno said he “felt frustrated” by the process of getting the notes after the fact, saying he missed the opportunity to “ask questions or give (his) ideas with everyone else.”
There was another problem as well. Centeno reads and writes English at a fourth of fifth grade level, and he often didn’t understand specific terms used in the meeting notes.
His supervisors suggested he use a dictionary to look up the words he didn’t understand.
Centeno contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about his need for an interpreter. The EEOC instructed him not to attend meetings where no interpreter was present.
When Centeno skipped the meetings, he was disciplined for insubordination.
Later, when he was asked to sign off on the company’s anti-harassment policy, Centeno again said he needed help understanding the written materials. Again, the employer declined to provide an  ASL interpreter to explain the policy, and told Centeno to use the dictionary to define the words he didn’t understand.
Process followed?
The EEOC brought suit on behalf of Centeno, saying he’d been a victim of disability discrimination.
The district court dismissed the case, saying UPS had engaged in the interactive process outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and had provided the employee sufficient accommodation.
But the appeals court reversed that decision.
It was clear that Centeno needed an ASL interpreter to understand key company policies and what was going on in meetings, the judge wrote.
And it was also clear that advising him to go to the dictionary to discern what was going on wasn’t an effective approach.
So the case now goes back to the lower court. You know what that means: either a lengthy, expensive trial or an expensive settlement.
Either way, the company’s already a loser.
Cite: EEOC v. UPS Supply Chain Solutions. For a look at the full court decision, go here.