Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
Author: Valerie B.
I have had tinnitus (ringing in the ears) since 1990. In 2014 it got worse, and I asked my company for an accommodation, which they gave me. It involved only moving the nearby printer to another room, so most of the noise was buffered.
In January 2017, we merged with another company and moved to a new building with a different configuration, so instead of one printer near me, there were 5 or 6. I asked to be moved away from the printers, and was given an accommodation that was not as good as the first – I was still close to two printers. I started wearing ear plugs to protect myself.
In October 2017, I was moved to a new spot, and this time I was told I could no longer have the previous, already downgraded, accommodation, even though the layout would have allowed for it. I was seated in front of a wall of glass, which amplified the printers’ sounds. At the time, we were all being exhorted to be “cooperative” to facilitate the merger, so I did my best not to complain about this. Again, I wore ear plugs as much as possible, but my work involves talking and listening, at which time the ear plugs must come out. In February, much of the staff was offered a buyout, and we were warned that if not enough people volunteered, there would be involuntary layoffs, so I was frightened to request my disability rights.
In April 2018, I was moved again, and in June 2018, I had a major flare-up of tinnitus. The ringing was so loud that I could not clearly hear dialogue while watching a movie on my home computer.
I stayed home for 2 weeks waiting for the tinnitus to die down. Finally I asked my company to reinstate my accommodation but they refused, insisting 1) that I get a new note from my doctor, even though they know my tinnitus is chronic; and 2) that I wear company-supplied noise cancelling headphones instead, even though my doctor specified in his letter to them that headphones were not a solution for my problem.
I am sure the flare up of my tinnitus is the result of the company denying me my accommodation for close to a year. I have since read that by law (Isbell v. John Crane, and others) a company may not take away an accommodation once it has been provided, so I think I stand on solid legal ground.
At substantial cost to me in time and dollars, I have consulted with several doctors since my flare-up in June, and have had to live a severely proscribed life since then. For example, I cannot go to most restaurants or bars, I can’t attend concerts or other social events, I have had trouble in subways and buses. I have occasional weekend and evening job offers that I must turn down because I know the sound level will be beyond my endurance. My whole life centers now on whether I can predict the noise level of my environment.
I should mention that I am 64. One of my above postings was to a position known by management to be a high stress position, which the last two employees quit, rather than be forced to continue to do that job. I believe I was placed there in hopes that I too would quit. Fortunately, I was moved out of that position in July, after 3 months.
I should state that in July I was moved a spot with a low noise factor. I am very appreciative of that, but it does not alter the fact that the company took away my accommodation illegally, that they brought on my tinnitus flare-up, now in its 5th month, and that I continue to suffer both personal and financial costs because the company refused to accommodate my disability, even though it was possible for them to do so at no cost to them.
I would be grateful if you could tell me if you recommend that I take legal action.