Six to eight million people in the United States have some form of language disorders, such as speech disorders and impediments. There are several types of speech disorders, such as articulation disorder, which is characterized by distortions or omissions of speech sounds; fluency disorder, which is characterized by atypical rhythms, flow and/or repetition of sounds; and voice disorder, which is characterized by abnormal volume, pitch, vocal quality, resonance, or duration. Additionally, a speech impairment may manifest itself as a speech impediment, which is the difficulty speaking clearly, such as a stutter or lisp. Frequently, the cause of speech disorders and impairments are unknown. There are some known causes, including hearing loss or impairment, neurological disorder, brain jury, intellectual disability, drug abuse or physical impairments, such as cleft lip or palate. Speaking is considered to be a major life activity, and when it is substantially limited, speech impairment is falls within the definition of “disability” under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), and individuals living and working with speech impairments are protected against discrimination.
Unfortunately, persons with speech impairments experience discrimination in all aspects of their lives, often leading to a general lack of self-confidence and self-doubt. For instance, a common incorrect assumption is that individuals with speech disorders and impediments have poor communication skills, as in they are unable to form complex thought patterns in order to get their ideas across. While language and communication are inextricably linked, not all speech disorders and impediments are the result of intellectual disabilities, and these assumptions function as obstacles to getting and keeping jobs. Employers are forbidden from acting on these assumptions during the hiring process and are prohibited from asking about medical conditions, and cannot require medical examination prior to employment. Conversely, employers are permitted to ask if an applicant will need accommodations to complete the application, and can conduct non-medical tests to measure the applicant’s ability to perform job related functions. Further, an employer can conduct an examination once a job offer is given if all employees are treated equally, and can only withdraw the offer if post-offer examination shows that an employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the position applied for.
Individuals with speech impairments are not only faced with potential discrimination or lack of understanding from their supervisor, but also with their supervisor’s assumptions regarding how others perceive the employee. This is particularly true in a job where there is a lot of interaction with the public. These concerns and conjectures can manifest themselves in a variety of discriminatory conduct. Employers can discriminate by firing an employee, changing an employee’s responsibilities or position to effectuate a demotion without ever changing the employee’s title, or continually failing to promote an employee. These changes are discriminatory when they are made based on the individual’s disability, rather than merit. In some instances, instead of making these affirmative changes, employers choose to create a hostile work environment in order to push employees out by forcing them to quit, which is considered discriminatory as well.
As discussed above, persons who have speech impairments are considered disabled under the ADA and are therefore entitled to protection against discrimination. If you live in the metro New York area, including Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan, or on Long Island and have experienced discrimination in the hiring process or the workplace because of your speech disorder or impediment, you should contact a New York disability attorney.