Is your Dispatcher Crazy?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) grew out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Officially, the ADA was born in an amendment to the Fair Housing Act in 1988. One of the amendments prohibited discrimination against applicants due to a disability. In 1990, the ADA was signed into law. Since then, numerous updates have been made and the ADA regulations are common knowledge. One of the provisions of the ADA outlines employment practices, including application, hiring, accommodation and firing. Most businesses are mindful about adhering to the ADA regulations including federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies. Emergency communications centers are no exception.

I first became aware of the role the ADA plays in communications several years ago. One of our 9-1-1 operators was talking about the accommodations being made for her prior to starting radio training. Until that time, I hadn't even noticed she had a disability although it was physically visible. Knowing about it, didn't change the way I interacted with her. It might have caused her to type a bit slower than other operators, but it didn't strike me as a harmful defect. It did get me thinking about what type of disabilities might be detrimental to a public safety occupation.

Two of the categories which caused me to be concerned about ADA and public safety were mental illness and addiction. Mental illness has long been stigmatized and I applaud the medical, legal and political communities for attempting to neutralize this. As a lay person, one who is sitting in the dispatch chair being relied on to assist an officer in need of help or taking the 9-1-1 call which might save a life, I feel uncomfortable with the thought of the person next to me not being "well" enough to do their job. As for addiction, most departments screen out past drug users, but can only do so because of the illegal nature of the substance abuse. Those who are alcoholic fall under the ADA's protections. Again, I wonder about the ability of someone who might easily relapse and be under the influence.

Putting aside my personal hesitation, I looked into the ADA and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is in charge of enforcing anti-discrimination legislation on the job. According to Title I of the ADA, qualified people with disabilities are guaranteed equal opportunity to jobs, including critical jobs like police officer and emergency communications operator. The person must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, but not the incidental ones. In addition, reasonable accommodations must be made to equalize the disability.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) stated two exceptions exist to the requirements of Title I. First, an employer is not required to provide an accommodation if it will impose an "undue hardship" on the operation of its business such as accommodations that are excessively costly, extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. In several EEOC lawsuits, addiction has been cited as the reason an employee had excessive absenteeism or poor performance at work. In a mandatory staffing job, such as emergency communications, an absent co-worker means more work for others and less service to the public.

The second exemption stated reads an employer may refuse to employ or provide accommodations to an individual who poses a "direct threat" to the health or safety of him/herself or other employees in the workplace. A person with a mental illness which creates extreme emotional or physical reactions could be hired under ADA guidelines, but what happens when a child calls in and says they witnessed their father kill their mother? Could the stress put the operator over the edge? Would the person be able to finish the call and continue working? These are all the questions which cross my mind. Granted, I have no medical or psychiatric training. NAMI appears to address concerns such as these by furthering, the determination that an individual poses a direct threat to self or others cannot be made simply based on stereotypical generalizations about mental illness, but may be based only on objective evidence from a treatment provider or another credible source that the individual's present condition makes him or her a direct threat to self or others. The term "direct threat" has been an element of vigorous litigation, along with other vague terms within Title I.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed on behalf of public safety employees, stating they have been fired unjustly due to their disability. In Houck v. City of Prairie Village, a mentally-ill police officer who had a lengthy list of mental health issues, including PTSD, bi-polar disorder, and suicidal tendencies, was dismissed after being involved in a domestic dispute with his wife. Although the court recognized the causal relationship between behaviors and his mental illness, it held, "A person who commits a criminal act as a result of a disabling condition is not excused from the employment consequences of the criminal act because of the disability."

In Singer v. Office of Senate Sergeant at Arms v. Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices, a U.S. Capitol Police dispatcher was absent excessively, stating his depression caused problems with abusing alcohol. The department worked with him, but agreement broke down over removal of past discipline. The plaintiff filed an EEOC lawsuit stating he was being discriminated against because his behavior was caused by his disability. The Federal Circuit Court stated he was not entitled to a "fresh start".

So what does all this mean? As an emergency communications operator or supervisor, you have little say over what human resources is doing. Hiring practices are usually out of your hands and I'm sure not having to follow all the legislative changes concerning employment is a blessing to most of us. On the other hand, most of us care deeply about our work and want to make sure the most qualified people are involved in the life and death dance we call an occupation. Studying the ADA and how it affects public safety is important and, especially, for supervisors could keep you from being dragged into court.