Monday, October 20, 2014

What if…? Internet use as a disability

Last year I reported on the possibility that Internet use could become an ADA-protected disability. Now, we have one of the first documented cases of this phenomenon. From CNN:

A man who checked in to the Navy’s Substance Abuse and Recovery Program for alcoholism treatment was also treated for a Google Glass addiction, according to a new study.

San Diego doctors say the 31-year-old man “exhibited significant frustration and irritability related to not being able to use his Google Glass.” He has a history of substance abuse, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, they say.

The man was using his Google Glass for up to 18 hours a day in the two months leading up to his admission in September 2013, according to the study…. “He reported that if he had been prevented from wearing the device while at work, he would become extremely irritable and argumentative,” the doctors write.

The Guardian adds that “the patient repeatedly tapped his right temple with his index finger, … an involuntary mimic of the motion regularly used to switch on the heads-up display on his Google Glass.”

This supposed addiction is not limited to wearables like Google Glass. For example, CBS News recently reported on the physiological changes to the brain that could result from too much Facebook use.

What results when we toss this story into the employment-law blender?

  • Do you have employees who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time online? Is it affecting their performance and inhibiting their ability to perform the essential functions of their jobs? If so, you may have to engage them in the interactive process to determine if there exists a reasonable accommodation that enables them to perform those essential functions? For example, could you deny computer access to employees who do not need to use a computer for their jobs, and require that such employees leave their cell phones outside the work area?

  • Do you have a policy that prohibits non-work-related Internet use? If so, it might run afoul of the ADA, just like hard-capped leave absence of policies. It’s not that employers cannot place reasonable limits on workplace computer use. By instituting a ban, however, employers are avoiding their obligations to engage in the interactive process, thereby violating the ADA.

These are difficult issues, exacerbated by the novelty of the concept. Nevertheless, the more the Internet becomes entrenched in our lives (if that possible), the greater the likelihood that employees will begin embracing ideas such as Internet addiction as a disability and the need for employers to consider and provide reasonable accommodations. It’s a brave new world, we just happen to work in it.

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