Firm discriminated against deaf man in test for job, state agency charges

February 09, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

A deaf cabinetmaker who did poorly on a written aptitude and personality test was illegally denied a job by a Prince George's County company, the Maryland Human Relations Commission has charged.

Such written tests unfairly discriminate against deaf persons, who typically score low on tests that have nothing to do with their occupational abilities, the commission argued in filing handicap discrimination charges against Pittcon Industries Inc. of Riverdale.

The commission said the company turned down Curt H. Garden for a job in June 1987 after he scored poorly on a pre-employment test. Pittcon did not offer an alternative test to accommodate Mr. Garden's deafness and did not test his skills in cabinetmaking, the agency charged.

Pittcon, which went bankrupt, conceded that the test might have been faulty in evaluating deaf applicants. But it argued that there was no job to offer Mr. Garden, and no one else was hired for the position, so that no discrimination occurred.

The lawyer overseeing Pittcon's liquidation, Roger Schlossberg, said the Human Relations Commission's three-year delay in prosecution was frustrating, since the company, with its assets sold, no longer existed and was protected from further debt claims by the federal bankruptcy laws.

Mr. Schlossberg has asked the bankruptcy court for a contempt ruling against the state agency for pursuing the charges.

Mr. Garden, 28, who was trained in cabinetmaking at a vocational institute and at a two-year community college, now lives in Washington state. His attorney said he was not seeking a job with a defunct company by pursuing the matter but did want two years of back pay.

"The relief he is seeking is not only monetary but an opportunity to reduce the use of such tests by other companies that are evaluating deaf employees," said Karen Peltz Strauss of the National Center for Law and the Deaf in Washington, Mr. Garden's lawyer.

Deaf people often score poorly on these tests because of their distinct social culture and language differences, she said.

The test given Mr. Garden, for example, asked how often he struck up conversations with strangers -- a situation more common for persons with hearing, Ms. Strauss said. It also asked about TV programs, which have only recently been closed-captioned for deaf viewers, she added.

Sign language is the native language for many deaf people such as Mr. Garden, and it is different from spoken English, Ms. Strauss explained. Their reading skills on tests based on spoken English and its idioms are often weak, she added.

"The question is what the test is trying to test," she said. "If it is personality or work skills, there are other ways to do it," such as through a sign language interpreter.

Ann Spragins, a psychology professor at Gallaudet College for the deaf in Washington, said that "those who are born deaf have a very difficult time in learning written English."

She added, "This has nothing to do with intelligence but with how language is learned."

The job discrimination case will have a hearing by a state administrative law judge.

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