December 7, 2009

Fear of Talking: The Narcoleptic Dispatcher

Kenya Madden was hired as a police dispatcher for the Village of Hillsboro, Illinois, in July 2007. During the 10 week training period, she informed the trainer that she had narcolepsy, a disorder which causes people to fall asleep at unplanned moments. Some weeks later, she also informed her supervisor of her condition. The supervisor reacted with alarm. He had visions of Madden falling asleep in the middle of an urgent dispatch. He asked for Madden's resignation. When she refused, he terminated her.

Madden filed suit under the ADA, alleging discrimination based upon (the perception) of a disability. This week, the case settled out of court for $10,001. Interesting number, interesting case.

There is no question that Madden's supervisor mishandled the situation. With visions of disaster spinning in his head like demonic sugarplum fairies, he hastily put an end to the employment relationship. He did not ask for any details about the condition: how long she had experienced it; the degree to which medication controlled it; the last time she had an episode. He did not request permission to speak to Madden's doctor. He reacted out of a fear totally out of proportion to the situation.

But Madden is not without fault. If her condition was under control, why did she feel obligated to disclose it twice (to the trainer and the supervisor)? If no accommodation was needed - and none was - then why did she bring up the issue?

We can read several things into the modest settlement: while the Village of Hillsboro mishandled the situation and violated the ADA, their actions appear to based upon the limited information provided by Madden: she could have attempted to reassure her supervisor by explaining the successful medical treatment she was receiving. She apparently was silent on the issue. A more gratuitous termination would have resulted in a six or seven figure settlement. Instead, Madden receives $10,000 for her trouble, with an extra dollar tossed in for good measure. That's a pretty clear indication that while Madden was wronged, she may have had some responsibility for the situation.

This case illustrates a common problem in the way people perceive disability. We tend to jump to conclusions. "Narcolepsy" in a dispatcher sounds like an invitation to catastrophe.But it ain't necessarily so. Try asking a few questions to determine just how big the risk is. Talk is cheap and talk, in situations like this, is definitely the way to go.

| 2 Comments

2 Comments

Thanks for pointing this out. Under the new ADA Amendments, organizations must take seriously their need to educate line supervisors and management in how to handle the interactive process. This type of disclosure should trigger an interactive discussion with the supervisor and Human Resources (in this case) in how to best accommodate this employee. Unfortunately, it appears in this case (and many cases) a management decision was made that wasn't vetted by HR.

This is a great example of all that can and does go wrong with invisible illness/conditions. Neither side behaved "strategically". Their actions/reaction caused needless damage.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on December 7, 2009 1:19 PM.

Ten Years After: the Worcester Cold Storage Fire was the previous entry in this blog.

"Exclusive Remedy" for Losing Your Face? is the next entry in this blog.

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