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EEOC: Provide Job Coach to Employee with Mental Retardation

By Allen Smith  8/9/2012
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A job coach may be a reasonable accommodation for an employee who has difficulty following directions because of an intellectual disability, such as mental retardation, a July 30, 2012, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settlement shows.

Since 1984, Lee Fladmo, who is mentally retarded, worked as a kitchen employee and dietary aide, washing pots and pans, clearing food off used trays and setting up meals on trays for patients at Banner Health in Phoenix.

After Fladmo was fired in 2000, he filed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) discrimination charge with the EEOC. In a 2002 settlement, Banner agreed it would not take any actions with respect to Fladmo’s employment without addressing them with his brother, who had power of attorney.

Fladmo then was disciplined and fired in 2005 for minor work infractions, such as eating food off the used trays, Mary Jo O’Neill, a regional EEOC attorney in Phoenix told SHRM Online on Aug. 7, 2012, and his brother wasn’t allowed to arrange for a job coach to be sent to the worksite.

Simplified Communication

A job coach could have helped communicate why it was not OK for Fladmo to eat off a used tray, breaking the communication down into a simple instruction, O’Neill said. His supervisor had yelled at him for breaking work rules, and used words that Fladmo didn’t understand, she added.

A job coach would not have cost the employer because it would have been covered by state vocational rehabilitation. Fladmo had received job coaching in the past, and it had helped. A job coach wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on site, but might come in a short period of time to explain job duties. “A job coach doesn’t just coach a person with a disability. The coach teaches supervisors how to communicate better and more simply,” she remarked.

After Fladmo lost his job in 2005, he couldn’t afford his apartment anymore and moved to Minnesota to live with his brother. Initially, he was terribly depressed, O’Neill said, but he eventually found another job.

Relative’s Help

People with intellectual disabilities want to work, and employers should make the effort to reasonably accommodate them, O’Neill said. In addition to allowing a job coach on site, employer communication with a relative of someone who is mentally retarded often can help the person interact with others. That person might be a parent for a younger person with an intellectual disability or a sibling for an older person who is mentally retarded.

In the recent settlement, Banner agreed to provide its managers and supervisors with training on the ADA and to pay the Lee Fladmo Special Needs Trust $255,000.

People with disabilities continue to be underemployed and unemployed at unacceptably high rates, O’Neill remarked. Fladmo’s termination “was not just a failure by supervisors, but HR, which approved the termination and should have asked about accommodations,” she added.

Banner officials did not reply to a request for comment.

Allen Smith, J.D., is manager, workplace law content, for SHRM.

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