EntertainHR: Marvel’s Echo Teaches Employers About the Importance of Accommodations in the Workplace

The character of Maya Lopez (a/k/a Echo) was first introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Hawkeye as the leader of the Track Suit Mafia, the crime syndicate run by Wilson Fisk. After Maya learns her father was killed on Fisk’s orders, Maya leaves the syndicate and shoots Fisk. Echo starts a few months later as Maya, a Choctaw Indian and deaf person (just like the actress who portrays her) returns to her hometown in Oklahoma to escape Fisk’s team which is pursuing her.

Photo: Marvel Studios

In flashbacks, we see how Maya became Fisk’s protégé. Since Fisk’s sign language skills were rudimentary, we see how he uses a sign language interpreter to communicate with Maya during their regular “family” dinners. Unfortunately when you are interpreting for a mob boss, your tenure (and your life) are tragically cut short because you have heard too much. But these scenes show employers that accommodations in the workplace are possible no matter what the work is.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees (or applicants) with disabilities, provided the accommodation does not cause an undue burden (a/k/a is cost prohibitive). An employer must engage in the interactive process with the employee (or applicant) to determine what accommodations, if any, the employer could provide to the employee (or applicant). An employer is not required to provide the employee (or applicant) the exact accommodation the employee (or applicant) wants; an employer is only required to provided reasonable accommodations. Examples of reasonable accommodations are changes to facilities to make them more accessible, modifications to policies, equipment or schedules, leave, allowing service animals in the workplace land providing qualified readers or interpreters (usually at the employer’s cost).

Speaking of costs, many employers are hesitant about providing accommodations because they are concerned about how providing the accommodation will impact the company’s bottom line. In a years’ long study conducted by the Job Accommodation Network (“JAN”), most accommodations provided by employers costed employers nothing. When costs were incurred, the average cost of a one-time accommodation was around $300 and a continuing accommodation had an average annual cost of $3,750. The study also showed that employers who did provide accommodations often found those costs offset by increased employee retention, attendance, and productivity. Most importantly, the study found that the accommodations were effective in allowing employees with disabilities to perform their job functions. You can find more information about this survey here.

Since the interactive process is a very fact-specific endeavor, there is rarely a “one size fits all” solution. But some best practices include:

1. Be interactive! Talk to the employee. The employee likely knows what they need to do the job. Ask the employee how the requested accommodation would help them perform their job functions. And don’t be afraid to suggest alternatives.

2. Ask the employee for medical documentation when necessary.

3. Train your managers on how to respond to requests for accommodations. Often accommodations requests are ignored due to lack of education on what the law (and company policy) requires.  

4. Get help when necessary. The Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network is an excellent, free service which provides employers with a wealth of information about the accommodations process and many examples of accommodation examples for various disabilities.  And, of course, don’t hesitate to contact legal counsel when you feel it is necessary.

5. Check in on the employee once the accommodation has been made and a few times thereafter to determine how effective the accommodation has been, if any tweaks or changes need to be made, or to see if the accommodation is still necessary.

Rachel Ullrich is a partner at FordHarrison.

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