What Would You Do?

You are a teacher in a large lecture course. A student approaches you mid-semester and tells you that she needs accommodations in order to take the midterm that is scheduled for next week. She claims that she is entitled to the accommodations because she has a disability. How do you respond?

RESPONSE: Any student seeking an accommodation needs to have a letter from an MD (medical doctor) which stays confidentially on file with the college support service or disability office. The teacher is entitled to know that the student has a disability, but is not entitled to the details surrounding the disability. The first step then is to ask the student if she has met this requirement. The second step is to confirm this documentation with the support services office. The third step is to discuss and negotiate with the student exactly what type of accommodation would be needed (e.g., extended time, a separate room, a proctored exam, etc.). Additionally, if the last minute timing has created an inconvenience for you, tell the student that knowing about the accommodation earlier would have helped you both.

You are a counselor in the student support office of a small college. Your dean approaches you in August and asks you to run a special orientation group for new students with psychiatric disabilities entering in September. What issues should you consider as you are planning and implementing this group?

RESPONSE: You can run the group as long as it does not have a discriminatory effect on the participants. Specifically, participation in the group cannot be made mandatory, and students must not be required to disclose a disability in order to attend your school.

In fact, inquiries about the presence, nature, or severity of disability are illegal.

You are a counselor at a community college, and a student with a psychiatric disability wants you to assist her with accessing classroom accommodations. When you ask for the required letter of disability documentation from her medical doctor, she says she is a Native American and as such, she does not believe in or subscribe to any form of traditional medical practice.

RESPONSE: A letter of documentation is required to trigger any type of academic adjustment. The first step would be to explore with the student to verify that the student really is in fact a Native American whose beliefs prohibit the use of any MD. If this is true, it may be possible to have a psychologist write the letter, but accommodations are legally not required to be provided unless there is a letter from a medical doctor on file documenting the disability. It might be useful to explain the purpose and the benefits to her of having such a letter, to help alleviate any fear she may have about acquiring documentation.

As an administrator, two different students approach you with reports that one particular faculty member is refusing to allow any academic adjustments in his classroom, citing his right to “freedom.” What is your response?

RESPONSE: The right to reasonable accommodations overrides faculty rights to academic freedom; the academic adjustments must be allowed, if they are reasonable, and if the student has a documented disability.

A student who has a documented psychiatric disability is one of thirty in class that meets for three hours, once a week. He says that because one of the side effects of his psychotropic medication is akathesia (extreme restlessness), he needs to pace around the classroom every twenty minutes, to relieve his agitation. What is your response?

RESPONSE: Protecting the rights of one student does not justify violating the rights of several others, which in this case is the right to participate and learn in the classroom. The student with akathesia must negotiate with the teacher to find a way to participate that does not interfere with the learning of the other students. Perhaps he needs more frequent breaks, or needs to arrange to have some of the lecture taped, if he cannot attend the entire lecture. The law requires that the student be able to meet the essential requirements of the role; if attending is essential, he may not be able to fulfill the requirements of the student role.

A job applicant tells you that she has a mental illness and needs to come in at 10:00 am, instead of your normal starting time of 8:30 am. The job is a secretarial position and you need someone to answer the phones when you open for business and the receptionist is not there (she works 9:30 to 5:30). Can you require this applicant to come in at 8:30? How should you respond to her request?

RESPONSE: Assuming that you already have chosen this applicant as the most qualified person for the position, you would review the job description to identify whether answering the phones is an essential function of the job. In this case, it is a marginal duty for a secretary (the receptionist has main responsibility for answering the phones), and you may not be able to require the applicant to come in at 8:30 given that she is requesting an accommodation. Since she initiated the disclosure, you can ask her why she needs to come in at 10:00 so that together you can open a discussion to identify accommodations that will work for both of you. You might also ask if there are any other accommodations that she will need in order to do the job. You may ask her to provide documentation of her disability and need for accommodation, if you feel you need this information. Begin to develop a collaborative, problem-solving relationship with this employee to set the stage for a good working relationship with this employee. Free technical assistance and advice can be obtained by contacting the Job Accommodation Network at (800) 526-7234 for help in identifying reasonable accommodations.

You supervise an auto mechanic who makes a lot of mistakes – not changing the oil when asked to do so, installing parts backwards, misdiagnosing car problems, and making unnecessary repairs. You suspect that he is having emotional problems, but he has never said anything to you directly. You have given him reminders, verbal warnings about his mistakes and taken extra time to help him correct his repairs. You have just informed him that he is being fired when he tells you that he has an anxiety disorder and is taking medications. Are you legally required to keep him on the job because of this disclosure?

RESPONSE: In most cases, an employer who has taken reasonable measures to give feedback, clarify job responsibilities, and follow good management practices would not be required to keep an employee who waits until after being told he is fired to disclose disability. The ADA protects qualified employees who have notified the employer about the disability; that is, people who are able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. This employee did not volunteer the information until it was too late, and the employer was not aware of the disability or need for accommodation prior to taking this action. The employer does have the right to expect all employees to be able to do the job for which they were hired. The Key Bridge Foundation at (202) 274-1822 has a Mediation Training and Information Center for the ADA which maintains a list of mediators trained to handle ADA issues to help you resolve this type of issue with the employee.

You have an employee who has told you about his mental illness. He has been getting into loud arguments with other employees in the last few weeks. Prior to this, his work performance was good. You are worried that he is going to hurt someone, although he has not physically threatened anyone or caused bodily harm, he has just gotten into loud arguments. How would you handle this situation with the employee?

RESPONSE: Approach the employee privately and ask him how things are going for him on the job or how he has been getting along with other employees. Share your observations that he has been heard in loud conversations with other employees. Ask if there are any ways that you can help resolve these issues, while at the same time clearly describing the expectations for behavior and safety in the workplace that all employees must follow. Reinforce how your job is to ensure good working conditions for all employees to do their jobs. Offer to help the employee to find resources to help him with any personal problems that he may be having (such as referral to your employee assistance program or coordination with his doctor), especially since you value the good work that he has done for you.

Legally, you cannot terminate this employee based upon the assumption or concern about direct threat to himself or others, if there is no recent evidence of physical harm or threats. Consult the EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the ADA and Psychiatric Disabilities for more information about the direct threat standard (available from the EEOC at 800-669-3362, your local ADA Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center at 800-949-4232, or call the Job Accommodation Network at (800) 526-7234 for free technical assistance.

Please note that these scenarios do not constitute legal advice. Each situation is unique and employers should consult their legal resources about their particular situations and recommended actions.

NOTE: The information contained in these pages is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice regarding their particular situations.