EEEOC Office of Legal Counsel staff members wrote the following informal discussion letter in response to an inquiry from a member of the public. This letter is intended to provide an informal discussion of the noted issue and does not constitute an official opinion of the Commission.
ADA: Sign Language Interpreters
October 28, 2013
Your correspondence dated September 16, 2013, to Chair Jacqueline Berrien has been referred to me for reply. You have asked whether hearing impaired employees have a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to choose their own communication access service provider for interactions with non-deaf employees and supervisors or when interviewing for promotions.
Among other statutes, the EEOC enforces Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12111, et seq., as amended, which prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities by private, State, and local government employers with fifteen or more employees. As part of their obligations under Title I, covered employers must provide reasonable accommodations for the known physical and mental limitations of otherwise qualified applicants and employees with disabilities, unless to do so would pose an undue hardship. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A); 29 C.F.R. § 1630.9. Examples of reasonable accommodations necessary to provide effective communication include qualified sign language interpreters for different types of sign language, readers, or assistive technology such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (“CART” transcription), captioning of videos and video-streamed presentations, or use of video relay services and video remote interpreting services.
An employer’s decision regarding what accommodation to provide for an employee who is deaf or has a hearing impairment, like any accommodation decision, is an individualized one. The appropriate accommodation may depend on the setting in which communication occurs, the ability of the employee to use certain means of communication, technological advancements that make once-effective accommodations obsolete or ineffective, and other factors. For example, someone with a hearing impairment who can lip read in one-on-one discussions involving simple matters may still need a sign language interpreter for longer, more complex discussions or for larger meetings. Similarly, using e-mail, typing on a computer, or exchanging handwritten notes may be an effective accommodation for brief and infrequent communications, but not for longer or more complex communications. Moreover, although one employee with a hearing impairment may need a sign language interpreter, another employee who does not know or fluently use sign language may need CART or some other accommodation.
If there is more than one effective accommodation, “the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration. However, the employer providing the accommodation may choose between effective accommodations . . . .” Appendix to 29 C.F.R. Section 1630.9. Therefore, if there are two or more effective means of enabling an employee with a hearing impairment to communicate at work, the employer may choose the easier or less expensive accommodation, as long as the accommodation chosen is effective for the individual. See generally Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the ADA (as revised, 10/17/02), at question 9, www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html.
An interactive process with an employee will help ensure initial selection of an effective accommodation and will be important for reassessing a situation if the employee requests a change to an accommodation that has been provided. For instance, if a particular interpreter is not effective for the individual (e.g., does not use the same type of sign language as the employee, or cannot sign quickly or accurately enough), the employer should arrange to provide an alternative individual as an effective accommodation. Similarly, if a technological device is too slow or experiences frequent disconnections inhibiting communication, the employer should determine whether it needs to be repaired or replaced with a properly functioning or upgraded version, or whether a different accommodation is needed. By contrast, if a change in accommodation is sought due to mere personal preference, the employer need not assign a different individual to interpret or provide different technology. Information and assistance that may be useful in identifying options and making this evaluation is also available from organizations such as the Job Accommodation Network, www.askjan.org.
I hope this information is helpful. Detailed information on additional issues relating to deaf and hearing impaired employees is available in Q&A: Deafness and Hearing Impairments in the Workplace & the ADA, www.eeoc.gov/facts/deafness.html, and Q & A: Promoting Employment of Individuals with Disabilities in the Federal Workforce at questions 19-23, www.eeoc.gov/federal/qanda-employment-with-disabilities.cfm
This has been an informal discussion of the issues you raised, and does not constitute an official opinion of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Peggy R. Mastroianni
This page was last modified on November 7, 2013.
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