Labor & Employment Law

Providing Interpreter for Deaf Lifeguard May Not Be Unreasonable Accommodation, 6th Circuit Says

Updated: An Americans with Disabilities Act case involving a deaf Michigan man denied a lifeguard position because he needed an sign language interpreter was reinstated Thursday in the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nicholas Keith, who has been deaf since birth, passed the Oakland County lifeguard training course with the assistance of an American Sign Language interpreter, who shared instructions, Reuters reports. The interpreter did not assist him in performing life-saving tasks, and the county offered him a job as a wave pool guard. The offer was rescinded after a doctor conducting the pre-employment physical found that Keith could not be a lifeguard because he was deaf.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted the county’s summary judgment motion in Keith’s ADA action. It found that although the doctor did not make an individualized inquiry regarding Keith, the county was the final decision-maker, and the decision was made adequately. Also, the court found that the county did not violate the ADA because the plaintiff failed to show he could perform essential functions of the job.

The Sixth Circuit opinion (PDF) notes that Keith has a cochlear implant, and when he wears an external sound transmitter he can hear noises like alarms, whistles and people calling him. He is unable to speak verbally, according to the opinion, and he communicates with sign language.

A jury, the court wrote, could find that providing Keith with an interpreter during lifeguard meetings and instructions was reasonable. The opinion also questions whether the consulting group advising Oakland County on aquatic safety made an individualized inquiry regarding Keith’s ability to be a lifeguard.

“Indeed, the representatives testified that they could not provide an opinion regarding Keith’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position without seeing him in the actual work environment with the proposed accommodations in place,” the Sixth Circuit wrote.

“The only request he made for accommodation was to have an interpreter present for occasional classroom instructions and group meetings,” Joey S. Niskar, a West Bloomfield lawyer who represents Keith, told the ABA Journal. “This case should really serve to open the eyes of employers. They need to take their obligations under the ADA seriously, and they can’t run roughshod over folks with disabilities.”

Updated at 2:46 p.m. to add comment from Keith’s attorney.

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