On August 15th, 2023, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a lawsuit against an international remote-first technology company for disability discrimination against a deaf applicant. Briefly, the suit claims that the company violated federal law when it denied the applicant their request for reasonable accommodation during an interview. Furthermore, the company refused to hire the applicant based on his disability. Earlier this year, the EEOC released updated guidance on how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to hearing disabilities, including accommodations for deaf people and hard-of-hearing individuals.
Background of the Disability Discrimination Lawsuit
According to the disability discrimination lawsuit, the deaf applicant applied for a remote information technology (IT) administrator position for which he was qualified. Upon reviewing the application, the company offered the deaf applicant an interview. At this time, the applicant requested reasonable accommodation based on his deafness. As a part of the accommodation, the applicant requested that he may use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.
However, the company denied his accommodation request and terminated his candidacy. The company claimed that verbal communication and hearing were job requirements for the remote position. According to the company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the company would not have offered any position to a deaf candidate because of the company’s “remote-first” nature, whereby remote work is the primary option for most or all employees in the company. Nonetheless, the EEOC stated that the company’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations and consider the qualified candidate because of his deafness constituted disability discrimination under the ADA.
Subsequently, the EEOC filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. In EEOC v. Digital Arbitrage, Inc. d/b/a Cloudbeds, the EEOC seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the applicant, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future disability discrimination.
Employer Duty to Provide Reasonable Accommodations
Between state and federal law, discrimination laws cover virtually all employers. All businesses subject to state, federal, or local laws regarding disability discrimination must comply with their legal duty to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with a disability upon request, barring undue hardship to the business. A “reasonable accommodation,” as defined by the ADA and applicable state or local laws, is a modification to a process, job role, or work environment to help an individual with a physical or mental impairment perform the essential functions of a job. Reasonable accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals may include:
- a sign language interpreter (for example, during the application or interviewing stage);
- assistive technology (like teletypewriters, video relay services, and assistive software);
- using written memos and notes;
- work area adjustments (like moving a desk away from a noisy area)
- leave to obtain medical treatment, equipment, or to train a hearing dog; and
- altering non-essential job functions.
In addition, the EEOC warns employers against making stereotypical assumptions about applicants or employees with hearing disabilities. Such unfounded assumptions may involve a perceived safety risk, increased costs, or difficulty communicating. Making employment decisions based on such negative assumptions can constitute disability discrimination and lead to expensive employment-related lawsuits.