Hearing-impaired defence employee refused interpreter, gets $27,500

DND bosses called worker’s request for accommodation ‘nit-picky’ and ‘a crutch’
|employmentlawtoday.com|Last Updated: 11/24/2011

The Department of National Defence (DND) must pay a former employee who was hearing-impaired more than $27,000 for failing to provide him with a sign language interpreter.

Jeffrey Stringer was a draftsperson at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton, Ont. From 2003 to 2006. Stringer was born hearing- and speech-impaired and was fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). He could function in written English but often had difficulties understanding spoken English.

Stringer was hired under an employment equity program and DND was aware of his disability when it hired him. However, on several occasions, Stringer’s request for an ASL interpreter was refused. He requested interpretation for his performance appraisals so he could better understand his appraisal as well as at monthly safety meetings and an all-employee meeting to make sure he understood what was said. However, on all occasions, his requests were refused. When Stringer asked for an ASL interpreter to help understand the instructions for his BlackBerry, his manager told him to “read the damn manual.”

Stringer felt he wasn’t able to fully understand things at these times, though he fully met the requirements of his job. DND suggested English was a requirement for the job and he should take English language training. He was also told the department would accommodate him but the accommodations “should not be nitpicky” or “be a crutch.”

Stringer filed a grievance, saying DND’s failure to accommodate his disability discriminated against him and left him feeling humiliated and “personally diminished.” He asked for $17,500 in general damages for pain and suffering, another $17,500 in special compensation, coverage of his counselling expenses and an order for DND to implement policies and train its staff to avoid further discrimination.

A Canadian Public Service Labour Relations Board adjudicator found there was no proof the failure to accommodate caused Stringer to use family counselling services and dismissed that claim. However, the adjudicator found DND failed to meet its obligation of accommodation by not granting his request for an interpreter on several occasions. Based on similar cases, the arbitrator found $10,000 was a more appropriate amount for pain and suffering that resulted from the discriminatory treatment but agreed on $17,500 in special compensation because DND acted recklessly for more than three years and made Stringer feel marginalized with the “nit-picky” and “crutch” comments. The failure to provide an interpreter also put Stringer at a disadvantage compared to other employees, since he was prevented from fully understanding or participating in work-related activities, said the adjudicator.

The adjudicator also criticized DND for not consulting any experts or training management to help with accommodation, even though Stringer was hired through an employment equity program.

“(Stringer) fully satisfied the requirements of his job, but the employer decided to ask more from him, so that he would be less of a burden to accommodate,” said the adjudicator. “It was also particularly reckless to formally admit that (Stringer) is sufficiently competent in English to do his work but at the same time to blame him for his limited abilities in English and to urge him to get trained simply to reduce the employer’s needs for accommodation.”

DND was ordered to pay $27,500 for failing to accommodate Stringer and discriminating against him. The adjudicator did not order training or a revision of accommodation policy for DND because he found the discrimination was not the result of the policy but rather a failure to follow it.

For more information see:

Stringer v. Canada (Treasury Board — Department of National Defence), 2011 CarswellNat 3992 (Can. Pub. Service Lab. Rel. Bd.).

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