A large chain of photography studios hired a photographer in its Denver, Colorado, location. Called a "performer" in the job description, she was required to interact with and photograph customers, often young children, sell photo packages, and work in the lab behind the studio. But the employee was profoundly deaf and unable to speak or read lips. Imagine her problems interacting with customers.
What happened. "Collins" joined The Picture People (TPP), which has 170 locations nationwide, on October 23, 2007. Faced with the need to attend a TPP-sponsored training event before starting work, she requested an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, but was only able to get one 3 weeks later through the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. After she began work, she was able to shoot photographs of between 15 and 20 customers, but only when a speaking performer was available to help her—which was often during the holiday season. A couple of times, she tried it on her own, but didn't do very well.
After the holidays, managers reduced all store employees' hours and switched Collins to the laboratory. Unhappy with both the reduced hours and change of venue, she began goofing off—and complaining. A district manager disciplined her several times, and then the chain kept her on its payroll but did not schedule hours for her. She wasn't fired until the following October but had apparently not worked at all in 2008.
She complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that TPP had failed to accommodate her under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC sued TPP on her behalf, but a judge in federal district court ruled for the employer. Collins appealed to the 10th Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.
What the court said. TPP argued that strong communication skills were an essential function of a performer's job and that Collins even wrote poorly, so her notes to customers were unsatisfactory. The EEOC countered that TPP should have modified the position to allow her to communicate nonverbally and that TPP was required to provide her with an ASL interpreter for all staff meetings and training sessions.
TPP had once hired a performer who was severely hearing impaired, but she could both speak and read lips: Collins could not—so two out of three judges agreed with the district judge that TPP should not be held liable. EEOC v. The Picture People, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, No. 11-1306 (7/10/12).
Point to remember: This ruling is an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) victory for employers. But we still can't imagine why any TPP manager hired this candidate in the first place.