Say What? Redux

As a normal person trying to conduct an everyday transaction, it likely wouldn’t strike you as particularly onerous to expect to be able to engage in basic communication with the other party. Say you want to buy a cheese danish and mocha latte, but would like to make sure it costs less than the $20 bill in your hip pocket, so you ask the cashier, “how much will this cost?”  Instead of an answer, you get a stare.

What’s wrong with this scenario?

It’s bad business.  But according to the EEOC, it’s the law.  Via Walter Olson at Overlawyered :

Pay up, EEOC tells a cafe owner, for not taking on a hearing- and speech-impaired applicant for a cashier’s position [EEOC press release (Albuquerque’s Savory Fare Bakery and Cafe agrees to pay $20,000 and offer other relief).

The EEOC described the employee as “hearing impaired” and “having a minor speech impediment,” which neither makes her a bad person nor unemployable by any stretch of the imagination.  On the other hand, these are usually considered the skills needed for a job requiring communication with the public.  Then again, the law rejects the idea that pleasing the public, whose demands may well reflect common bias, makes discrimination okay.

“Employers with 15 or more employees must comply with the ADA,” said EEOC Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill. “Employers must make employment decisions based upon the abilities of their applicants and employees, not based on myths, fears or stereotypes about a person’s disability. The ADA was passed so that people with disabilities get a fair chance at making a living and have equal employment opportunities.”

And this conceptually good and right.  Rather than perpetuate myths that the disabled are worthless and incapable of enjoying a decent life, the law requires reasonable accommodation of their disabilities so that they can work like anybody else.  Or almost like anybody else.

Part of the mix is the pretense that disabilities don’t exist, or that the burden of accommodating them shifts from the disabled person, who isn’t at fault for being disabled, to both the employer and everyone else who has to deal with the limitations.  If properly placed, meaning that they’re in a job where the disabilities don’t preclude adequate performance, that’s great.  There used to be a concept called bona fide occupational qualification, the ability to perform the tasks the job required.  If a disability meant you couldn’t adequately do the job, then that wasn’t the job for you.

It’s impossible to tell from the EEOC decision whether the employee’s speech and hearing impediments were sufficiently severe to preclude her from performing the job, though no ruling, no fine are going to make customers who find dealing with her either too difficult or unpleasant come back to the bakery. The underlying policy is that if the government forces people to endure difficulties in their everyday lives, they’ll eventually get used to it and not let inherent difficulties stop them from doing business.  Most of us will shrug off minor problems, and be fairly happy to accommodate people with disabilities because they deserve to be able to enjoy life, including employment, like everybody else.

But Wally likens the case to “accent discrimination,” taking us back to an article he wrote in 1997 for Reason.

It’s true: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and private lawyers are hitting employers with legal complaints for preferring jobholders whose manner of speech is familiar and understandable to the customers and co-workers they deal with. In fact, in many cases it has become legally suspect for companies to insist on strong communications skills. The immigrant-rights unit of the U.S. Department of Justice has run subway and newspaper ads warning that the “ability to speak fluent English” must not “affect your decision about hiring a prospective employee.”

As a general statement, this might not seem so terrible. Certainly, a nation that touts itself as a “melting pot” should be capable of accepting those whose diction falls a tad shy of  Rex Harrison, right?  But where is the line drawn?  What about a small business where the owner or supervisor doesn’t speak the language of a prospective employee? It can be awfully difficult to direct a person’s employment by pointing fingers at objects and thinking pleasant thoughts.  Or worse still:

Civil rights enforcers admit there are some circumstances where employers may legitimately consider accents. They just take an ultra-narrow view of what’s legitimate. Consider the controversy that engulfed the town of Westfield, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago.

The town’s school system had assigned instructor Ramon Vega to an experimental program where he’d teach language skills to first- and second-graders. Some parents had trouble understanding Vega’s conversation themselves and worried that their kids might have the same problem. Four hundred of them proceeded to sign a petition asking that instructors in early grades be proficient in “the accepted and standard use of pronunciation.”

When word reached Boston, all hell broke loose. The state education commissioner charged the parents with “bigotry.” The National Education Association rushed through a resolution at its annual meeting decrying disparate treatment on the basis of “pronunciation”–quite a switch from the old days when teachers used to be demons for correctness on that topic.

Experts popped up and were quoted saying expert things. Donaldo Macedo, described as “director of graduate studies in bilingual education” at a local university, accused the parents of “linguistic racism”

The problem is that you can add an “ism” onto the end of anything, conveying the nefarious sense that it’s wrong to discriminate against them. Indeed, the accusation of discrimination itself is damning, without regard to what we’re discriminating against.  We discriminate constantly, and lawfully, in our everyday lives. We chose mates because they attract us, which may mean we discriminate against the fat or thin, the ugly or beautiful, as the case may be.  We prefer not to hang the tag of discrimination on our choices, because of its negative connotations, but it’s most assuredly what we do.

Similarly, we discriminate in business. We hire people competent to perform the job.  If it requires brilliance, we discriminate against the intellectually impaired. If it requires grace and skill, such as a ballet dancer, we discriminate against the clumsy and awkward. Nobody wants to buy an album by a person who can’t carry a tune.  How discriminatory of us.

I confess: I’m a linguistic racist.  My tolerance has worn thin on my calls for help being answered by a person whose Indian accent renders them incomprehensible to me.  I do not want to ask three times, “can you repeat that?” and still have no clue what they’re saying.  If I take the time to call, it’s something that matters enough to me that I need an answer.  Their need for employment despite their inability to communicate to an English speaking caller doesn’t matter enough to me to endure their limitations.

My reaction is the singular desire to reach through the phone and, well, never mind.  Suffice it to say I get frustrated by the three minute phone call that takes 47 minutes of my life, and still doesn’t resolve my problem.

When a business that wants my patronage compels me to endure this, I try to find another enterprise to do business with.  My assumption is that the business has elected to put me through this misery to save a few dollars by outsourcing at the expense of my tolerance.  I do not feel badly about my decision.

Yet the same situation could be rammed down a business’ throat by our own laws and government fiat.  Social “justice” isn’t a bad thing, but when it’s not tempered by reason, neither the intended beneficiary nor those of us who are also required to pay the price are helped.  And if anybody wants to pay to watch me dance ballet, just let me know.  Or are you dancist?

21 comments on “Say What? Redux

  1. John Neff

    I once told the person on the phone that because I could not understand them I wanted to talk to someone else. I was promptly transferred to someone that I could understand who was very annoyed with me. I told her that they were responsible for the fact that I could not understand the first person and she had no reason to be annoyed with me.

  2. SHG

    I’ve asked to speak with someone else on numerous ocassions. Sometimes I got the A team. Sometimes the F team. Sometimes my request was so difficult to communicate that I hung up and uttered foul language.

  3. SHG

    Not only is that what it means, but it’s what Wally meant. Go figure. Next on the docket, reading comprehension.

  4. Max Kennerly

    The word “ultra” does not mean what you think it means. It is Latin in origin, and in Latin it means “beyond.” It does not mean “very” in any language. I’m sorry you’ve been using it incorrectly all these years.

    See, e.g.: [Ed. note: Link to naked images of Kennerly deleted, per rules.]

  5. SHG

    First lesson in reading comprehension. The word “ultra” is used in a quote from Wally, rendering your “you’ve been using it incorrectly all these years” a rather curious grossly mistaken and utterly baseless assumption. If you have a beef with Wally’s usage, take it up with him, though I suspect he isn’t nearly as impressed with baby lawyers who are bizarrely enamored of their own brilliance as I am.  

    As for the first part of your sentence, “I’m sorry,” I’m torn between responding “apology accepted” or, “yes, yes you are.”  Pick ’em.

  6. Max Kennerly

    I was referring to Wally’s quote in my first comment. Then you adopted and affirmed his usage in your response, so I referred to your erroneous usage. It’s not my fault you decided to jump in and defend an erroneous use of a prefix.

    I appreciate the naked images joke, but perhaps you should inform your readers that it was a link to the actual etymology of the word “ultra.” You know, the word you’ve apparently been misusing all these years.

  7. SHG

    This is where your lack of maturity rears it’s ugly head, Max. Your need to keep digging to salvage your dignity invariably leads you to foolishness and making yourself appear to be in serious need of therapy and psychotropic medication. When you’ve reached the point where you no longer make any sense (as in your last comment), stop digging.

    Learn to laugh at yourself Max, like the rest of us.

  8. Greg

    The girl at the corner deli where I get most of my meat is fully deaf and I have no problem communicating with her. She’s a sweetheart. I should print this article out for her; she ought to know that because of her genetic defect she’s not fit for even menial work. Good catch

  9. Frank

    The EEOC’s decision is quite logical. You can’t have deaf people as EMTs, paramedics, nurses and doctors without something like this failing the laugh test.

  10. SHG

    I don’t think deaf people can’t do well in one or all of those occupations, under the right circumstances. Not all circumstances, however, are right, and some are decidedly wrong.

  11. Greg

    Says the guy offering anecdotes about “Press one for English?? Ehh?? What country is this?? Am I right!!” in some attempt to characterize your intolerance as down-home, simple country common sense. You got an example of a case you think is an injustice because obviously you have to be able to talk at length about the lofty issues of the day as a bona fide occupational requirement to work a cash register, but someone comes with an example the other way, and it’s “a bloo bloo I hope you’re not a lawyer”.

    Ravings from the trashbin on a slow weekend. Thanks for the article.

  12. SHG

    Yeah, EEOC decisions are the same as a personal anecdote of some guy on the internet named Greg. For the sake of clients everywhere, I seriously hope you’re not a lawyer, not because you have a different opinion, but because you have no clue what’s fundamentally wrong with your argument.

    As a public service, I’ll try to explain it to you.  I’ll assume for the sake of argument is 100% accurate. But what if 100 other people go to that deli and can’t communicate with her, decide never to return and the deli goes bust, how does your happiness with her change the outcome? Will you hunt them down and kill them for not going back to the deli, for being “intolerant,” because you are the arbiter of whether others should think it’s as fine as you do?

    You offer a strict liberal vision of equality and tolerance, that we must endure whatever it takes so that everyone can be equal even though they’re not. If it’s good with you, and you are the barometer of all goodness, it has to be good with everyone else or they’re intolerant assholes. I get it. We all get it. We don’t necessarily agree with it. But your evidence to prove your point was worthless. That’s the part you don’t grasp, and why I hope you’re not a lawyer.  Of course, if you are a lawyer or law student, you likely still won’t understand why your attempt at persuasion fails.

    And bear in mind, you’re a guest in my home. Don’t behave like an asshole.

  13. Walter Olson

    On “ultra-“, here is what has to say:

    …In relation to the base to which it is prefixed, ultra- has the senses “located beyond, on the far side of” (ultramontane; ultraviolet), “carrying to the furthest degree possible, on the fringe of” (ultraleft; ultramodern), “extremely” ( ultralight );…

    So if Max disapproves of “ultra-narrow” based on the original Latin etymology, he must also disapprove of words such as ultraleft, ultramodern, ultralight and so forth. I don’t think most writers would agree with him.

    [Ed. Note: I have allowed Wally’s link to remain rather than delete it per my rules to show that I unfairly favor Wally over Max and to give Max something meaningful to accuse me of.]

  14. Bruce Godfrey

    In related news, sewing circles must now be renamed or disbanded because circles have infinite points, whereas sewing groups do not have infinite membership lists.

  15. Nigel Declan

    J’Accuse! The insidious geometrist agenda rears its ugly head once again. Why can’t we just agree that all shapes are substantively the same and that square pegs will go through round holes if the government provides us with a big enough hammer?

  16. Shawn McManus

    Yall are going to have to forgive my simplistic view of this but how does any of the EEOC edicts wash with the freedom of association? Or is that one of those things that doesn’t apply to anyone doing anything involving money?

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