Thursday, February 12, 2015

Clowns, Black Sabbath tribute bands, and a lesson on the ADA

When I was a little kid, I was petrified of clowns. I would run screaming anytime I would see one in a parade, or one would show up on TV. I vividly remember a recurring nightmare of Ronald McDonald chasing me around the coffee table in our basement. Upon reflection, the dream was inevitable, given my coulrophobia, and the McDonald-land motif of a yellow coffee table, and bright red shag carpet that bore a striking resemblance to Ronald’s hair. I’ve been over my fear for nearly 40 years. But, if I wasn’t, I could flat our guarantee that I wouldn’t be applying for jobs at the circus. And, if I applied, I wouldn’t expect the circus to hire me.

Even if coulrophobia is an ADA-protected disability (and it likely is), that is only half of the equation to determine whether the ADA offers job protections to an individual with a disability. The individual must also be “qualified,” which means he or she must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

With all of this as background, consider Waltherr-Willard v. Mariemont City Schools [pdf], decided yesterday by the 6th Circuit. Maria Waltherr-Willard is a schoolteacher suffering from pedophobia, a debilitating fear of young children. She sued Mariemont City Schools for disability discrimination when it denied her transfer request. Needless to say, she lost.

The ADA, as amended in 2009, is wide-reaching. I’m on record as saying that most medical conditions will qualify as “disabilities” under the statute. But, just because an employee is “disabled” does not mean that you must accommodate the disability. You need to engage to employee in the interactive process to determine if an accommodation is needed at all to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, and if so, whether such an accommodation is reasonable and available. If the answer to these questions is no, then the ADA does not protect the employee.

(Yes, this is a real band).