Lt. David Lenotti says the fire department of Stamford, Connecticut improperly denied him extra time on its test for promotion to captain even though he had a diagnosis of learning disability. A state human rights investigator has backed Lenotti’s complaint, which is scheduled for a Jan. 23 hearing, but the Stamford authorities beg to differ:
The city has never granted anyone extra time on the lieutenant’s or captain’s exams, said Felicia Wirzbicki, human resources generalist. … The reasoning is that lieutenants and captains are in charge at emergency scenes and have to make split-second decisions, Wirzbicki and other city officials said. Those decisions often are based on floor plans, hazardous material reports and similar documents, they said. Speed is an “essential function of the job,” the city argued. … “You don’t get extra time at a fire scene,” Wirzbicki said.
None of which seems to cut much ice with disabled-rights advocates:
“You’re supposed to give accommodations, period,” said Suzanne Kitchen, a clinical instructor and consultant for the Job Accommodation Network, a federally funded non-profit that provides employers with advice on disability rights. “No is never the right answer.”
That last sound bite is actually quite false as a legal matter; in fact Ms. Kitchen herself is described elsewhere in the article as correctly noting that accommodations may sometimes be refused under the law. But it does have quite a ring to it, though, doesn’t it? (Zach Lowe, “State official: Disability rights apply on fire captain test”, Norwalk Advocate, Jan. 15). Jeff Hall at Created Things comments (Jan. 16).
All of which is very much business as usual in today’s employment discrimination law. Long before the disabled-rights suits came along, fire departments had came under intense attack by feminist litigators seeking to invalidate testing of applicants’ physical strength, agility and so forth, particularly when timed tests were involved. I wrote about this history at some length in The Excuse Factory, a few of the highlights figuring in this 1997 magazine piece. An excerpt:
[In Brunet v. Columbus] Judge Kinneary also disallowed the city’s practice of awarding credit for speed in accomplishing the dummy rescue or other simulated tasks such as hoisting equipment to upper floors (men tended to finish the tasks more quickly than women). Why? Well, Kinneary wrote, again accepting the arguments of plaintiffs’ lawyers, testimony had been given that “sometimes firefighters work all-out, and sometimes they pace themselves; it depends on the task at hand.” In other words, they hurry only sometimes, and other times save their energy because they expect to need it later. From this the judge concluded that all applicants who made it through the tasks at all deserved equal ranking. The case for preferring recruits who could work quickly was merely, he said, “anecdotal.” Yes, you read that right. It seems people have picked up this anecdotal idea that firefighters should do their job fast, maybe because they’ve heard anecdotally that fires left undoused tend to spread. Many press accounts adopted the same high-minded agnosticism about exactly what it takes to fight fires. City officials defending tests say “speed is critical” in combating blazes, reported the New York Times, in the best tradition of we-print-all-viewpoints journalism. “Opponents argue that it is not.”