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Providing Interpreters to Deaf Employees

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Woman signing

A federal appeals court recently overturned a district court’s decision against a deaf UPS employee. The employee is fluent in American Sign Language, a visual, three-dimensional, non-linear language that has different grammar and syntax differ from English and other spoken languages. He claimed UPS did not provide him with sign language interpreters for certain weekly meetings and instead only provided written summaries by note takers.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the suit on behalf of the employee, says UPS unlawfully discriminated against him by failing to make reasonable accommodations.

Should employers have to provide sign language interpreters for Deaf employees who request them at each and every meeting? ASL interpreters usually have a two-hour minimum charge of about $100 an hour. Another alternative is Communications Access Realtime Translation, or CART. This method is similar to captioning by providing a deaf consumer with a real-time, verbatim transcription of words that are spoken in a meeting. It costs more than ASL interpreters but can be done remotely via the Internet.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says that an employer has discretion to choose among effective modifications, and they do not need not provide the employee with the accommodation he or she requests or prefers. However, an employer cannot satisfy its obligations under the ADA by providing an ineffective modification.

The UPS employee claimed that handwritten notes were ineffective, particularly because he can’t read and write English above a fifth-grade level. This is a common issue among some Deaf people who never had oral schooling and so did not learn proper English grammar.

The ADA also says that employers must consider the nature of the information being communicated in a particular meeting or the length of the meeting; the federal court found that UPS relied on relatively arbitrary considerations in determining that an interpreter wasn’t needed for its weekly departmental meetings.

Aside from interpreters and CART, if you work with or employ a Deaf employee here are some tips to communicate with him or her:
- Get their attention first, by waving, making eye contact or touching someone lightly on the shoulder
- Stay in their field of vision
- Keep your hands away from your mouth
- Speak in a normal tone or voice; many deaf people can lip-read
- Use gestures and visual cues
- Establish context around the conversation before it starts
- If possible, choose a quiet room

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