Yesterday we filed suit against a major university on behalf of a former employee who was forced to quit because his supervisor refused to wear clear masks when communicating during the pandemic. Our client suffers from a severe hearing impediment, and, like most deaf individuals, relies heavily on lipreading and facial gestures when talking to others.
He has received therapy and assistive devices to help him communicate, but he still must rely on lipreading to understand what others are saying to him. This has never been a problem with those who understand his limitations and are willing to acknowledge them and work with him.
At the time the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, the lawsuit alleges, our client specifically asked, as a reasonable accommodation, that some individuals simply wear clear face masks so that he could read lips and observe facial gestures. The University had the ability to obtain them. And, clear masks are not a novelty. They have long been used in settings where some facial protection is needed and where precise communication is critical. By example, they’re used by interpreters, doctors, nurses, dentists, hygienists, orthodontists, other health professionals, educators, and teachers. The need to wear masks during the pandemic proved to be a huge barrier to communication for people with hearing loss, many of whom – like Plaintiff – rely on lipreading and facial expressions to communicate. But clear masks solved that problem and were strongly recommended by advocacy groups like the National Association for the Deaf.
The lawsuit alleges that, in particular, Plaintiff’s supervisor refused to use clear masks even when Plaintiff offered to provide them at his own expense. Eventually, our client was forced to resign because he could not communicate effectively in order to do his critical job.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is unambiguous. An employer must accommodate a disabled employee where doing so will allow the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of their job, and where the accommodation does not pose an undue burden. Here, clear masks were literally pennies each, and would have solved the problem for our client.
The University has not yet responded to the lawsuit.
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