Employees don’t have to be disabled to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act – they merely have to be regarded as disabled by their employer. That’s why it’s essential, whenever you have an employee with any sort of impairment, to fully understand the nature of the impairment and not leap to conclusions about what the employee can and cannot do.
A recent case illustrates the potential problems. An electrician at an aluminum can factory suffered a stroke. The stroke left him with vertigo and some problems with balance, and his doctor ordered him not to work high up on ladders or catwalks. Otherwise, though, he was cleared for work.
However, the stroke also left him with an apparently unsteady gait, and he appeared to have other problems with balance that didn’t involve heights. His boss became afraid that he was a danger to himself and others if he worked around dangerous machinery, even if he wasn’t on a ladder or catwalk.
As a result, he was demoted to a janitorial job.
The man sued. A judge initially threw out the case, but a federal appeals court in Denver said the man could go to court. Even if he wasn’t actually disabled, the fact that the company regarded him as having a disability meant that it could be held liable if it acted improperly in demoting him.
The moral is that you can’t just assume you know what work an employee is capable of doing. The Disabilities Act requires that an employer be very careful before disqualifying an employee based on an impairment.