By Dan Gephart, November 15, 2022

I watched my no longer undefeated Philadelphia Eagles take on the Washington Commanders on Monday Night Football. I am usually a wreck watching my Birds, and the last few weeks have been more anxiety-filled than ever. Despite the loss, the game was less stressful. The reason? I wasn’t forced to watch dozens of political ads during the game.

Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum or how you feel about last week’s results, I think we can all agree on saying good riddance to these dark, poorly produced, truth-averse, fear-mongering commercials. This past election season took awfulness and ugliness to a new level.

As losing candidates and parties continue their post-mortems this week, I’d like to conduct one, too. But I don’t want to discuss issues, votes, winning, or losing. Let’s talk about reasonable accommodation.

As the Pennsylvania primaries rolled to an end, the campaign for Senatorial candidate John Fetterman announced that he had suffered a stroke. Fetterman still won the Democratic primary, then stayed off the campaign trail for weeks as he recovered.

A major party candidate for the Senate recovering from a stroke seemed like an anomaly. It’s not. Former Illinois Senator Mark Kirk suffered a severe stroke and still campaigned for reelection in 2016, although he eventually lost to Tammy Duckworth. Two current Senators – Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland – have suffered strokes since they’ve been in office. More than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year, according to the CDC.

Fetterman’s campaign announced he had auditory processing difficulties, a common occurrence after a stroke. Fetterman’s first big foray back in public, other than a few small rallies, was a televised high-stakes debate with his opponent Mehmet Oz. Fetterman had requested and received an accommodation of closed captioning.

Despite the accommodation, Fetterman stumbled over some words, struggled to find others, and spoke haltingly. Critics and opponents called his debate performance “painful to watch,” “disastrous,” and “cringe-worthy.”

As Federal HR and EEO practitioners and supervisors, what can we learn from all of this?

  1. A communication disorder is not a reflection on an individual’s brain capacity or his/her/their ability to do a specific job. This should be obvious to everyone, but it isn’t always. For years, people have assumed that someone who struggles communicating — whether it’s a speech impediment or aphasia — lacks intelligence. Research has consistently shown that is not always the case.
  1. Accommodations are highly individualized. Just because another employee who had a stroke received a certain reasonable accommodation doesn’t mean that accommodation will be successful for someone else who suffered a stroke. There are a wide variety of stroke-related limitations. And people experience these limitations in different ways. The Job Accommodation Network suggests asking the following questions during the interactive process:
  • What limitations is the employee experiencing?
  • How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
  • What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
  • What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
  • Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
  • Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?
  1. Not every reasonable accommodation will be effective. Closed captioning is a potentially effective accommodation for someone who processes visual information better than auditory information, such as Fetterman. “But during a debate,” Disability Policy Expert Adam Fishbein wrote in an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “where multiple people were speaking rapid-fire, it would be difficult for Fetterman to integrate what he needed to read in order to process what was being said.” Fishbein and his cowriter Susan Paul, a certified speech/language pathologist, said a more effective accommodation would’ve been to allow Fetterman extra time to digest what he read and formulate his response, not starting the clock on his response until he started talking. Work closely with the employee and communicate often about the effectiveness of the accommodation.
  1. Have patience with the employee, but don’t delay accommodation. Not only are the limitations for individuals who have had strokes highly individualized, so is the recovery time. Taking your time to find the right accommodation doesn’t mean letting the situation play out. Jeffry R. v. USPS, EEOC App. No. 0120180058 (EEOC 2019) offers a great example: After a city carrier had a stroke that caused partial paralysis, he requested a spinner knob on his vehicle. The agency failed to provide one for three years. The agency argued that the carrier was not qualified because he took too long to complete his route. However, the EEOC found the agency only gave the carrier one month to reacclimate to delivering mail and to his route – he was able to do it within four months.

For more guidance on accommodation, join Attorney at Law and FELTG Instructor Katherine Atkinson November 17 for Reasonable Accommodation: Meeting Post-pandemic Challenges in Your Agency. [email protected]

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