An equal-opportunity complaint alleging that the Air Force discriminated against its deaf and hard-of-hearing civilian employees will move forward as a class-action case, a federal appellate office ruled April 5.
The decision is a win for Air Force employees who say the service failed to provide the tools they need at work, like American Sign Language interpreters, real-time captioning equipment and videophones.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint could ultimately lead to a smoother process by which deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can obtain that help, and more accessibility features like closed captioning in training videos.
“Our clients and the other Deaf civilians they represent are hard-working and incredibly capable people, and all they have asked for are the basic accommodations they need to do their jobs,” Sean Betouliere, an attorney for the Disability Rights Advocates group, and class counsel Wendy Musell, said in a release Monday.
“Employers with far fewer resources than the Air Force regularly provide such accommodations, but the Air Force’s process for accommodating Deaf applicants and employees is profoundly broken,” the release said. “The EEOC correctly recognized that these systemic problems require a systemic fix, and we are looking forward to continuing to fight for that necessary change.”
Sarah Weimer, a former labor and employment attorney for the Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, began the initial complaint in January 2020.
Weimer alleged that most of her requests for interpreters had been “denied, unfilled, or simply gone unanswered,” the ruling said. “There were instances when her supervisors contacted headquarters to obtain her accommodations but did not receive responses.”
On at least two occasions in the past three years, Weimer couldn’t finish her required training videos because they weren’t captioned, the ruling said. Transcribing the videos was not “sustainable, effective or efficient,” it added.
“The Air Force repeatedly failed to provide me with ASL interpreters or [Communication Access Realtime Services], and I went almost a year without a working videophone, meaning that I could not even make or receive phone calls,” Weimer said in the release. “Two other deaf employees at my base went over five years without videophones despite repeated requests.”
Those problems are “persistent … across virtually all installations,” said Kendra Shock, who previously served as the Air Force’s top disability program manager, according to the April 5 ruling.
The EEOC allowed Weimer’s complaint to become a class action in October, a move the Air Force appealed to the Office of Federal Operations. The office acts as an appellate court for EEOC rulings.
Because of the latest ruling, members of the class can include any deaf people who worked for or applied to jobs in the Department of the Air Force since Jan. 1, 2018, and found it difficult to secure reasonable accommodations at work.
At least 700 employees and applicants nationwide comprise the class, according to lawyers Betouliere and Musell. That number could grow by thousands: An Air Force legal brief said it had nearly 2,600 civilian employees who identified as deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Office of Federal Operations.
Weimer alleged that the service had provided ASL interpretation just 152 times to hundreds of deaf employees since 2018.
She argued that managers within the Air Force did not budget for those accommodations, in part because the process of carving out money for those services was onerous.
The ruling said that “requests often had to be elevated to the [major command] or higher headquarters, which created delays in providing accommodations.”
Shock, the former disability program official, testified that she “frequently attempted to raise a centralized process,” according to the ruling. She said one-quarter of Air Force installations don’t have a designated disability program manager.
The Air Force agreed that it lacked enough staff to run its disability program in recent years, the ruling said. Three full-time employees were in charge of processing requests for disability accommodations, plus 85 staffers who handled those duties on top of other full-time jobs, the ruling noted.
It also acknowledged that neither mandatory employee training sessions nor internal videos were consistently captioned.
The federal government ended a General Services Administration contract to provide live captioning to those who need it, a centralized option known as Federal Relay, in February 2022. Now federal agencies must seek out that help on their own.
The Air Force “was aware of complications with connecting videophones and captioned telephones since 2018, and rather than addressing the complications in a unified way, they were handled on a case-by-case basis,” the ruling said. “In many instances, the issues were never resolved.”
An Air Force spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The class complaint will return to the EEOC’s district office in Los Angeles, and an administrative judge will continue to probe the allegations. Class members may also bring their grievances to federal court.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.