By James W. Cushing
Special to the Legal
The matter of Hubbard v. Donahoe, Civil Case No. 03-1062, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is a class action lawsuit that pits the United States Postal Service against its deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a class action suit on behalf of various deaf employees USPS alleging that the USPS denied them communication accommodations (e.g., American sign-language interpreters), especially during meetings, refused to provide them a TTY for telephone communication, failed to give them emergency evacuation notification systems, did not promote them or provide assistance in their effort to get promoted, and subjected them to a hostile work environment as a direct result of their disabilities.
After about 10 years of litigation, the parties have finally submitted a class action settlement agreement to the District Court for $4.55 million.
Over the course of my life, I have been involved in the deaf culture in one way or another and I have learned that although most people think of not being able to hear as the disability of a deaf person, the challenges the deaf have in the simplest act of communication with a hearing person are perhaps the disability that most impacts their lives each day. The inability to effectively communicate serves to isolate the deaf person – likely the only one at a given employment location – and therefore completely separate him from the rest of his co-workers. Therefore, failing to provide an interpreter or basic emergency systems or even a telephone (i.e., TTY) compounds a deaf person’s disability and enhances his or her isolation. I can think of few things that would make a work environment more hostile than near complete isolation.
Regardless of the merits of the case, it reminds us that those with disabilities are equal members of our society and our workforce and all have value. A case like this serves as an important reminder that employers all have the obligation to ensure that they honor their responsibility to take reasonable measures to accommodate the disabilities of their employees and to ensure that the workplace is one in which the employees feel comfortable.