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The opportunity to serve: How the ADA changed the fire service

The ADA allows potential firefighters to be judged on what they can do, not on what others perceive their capabilities to be

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As we mark the 30th anniversary of the ADA, it is worth taking a moment to consider its impact on the fire service.

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A Washington State fire officer has recently returned to full active duty after undergoing a heart transplant.

Wrap your mind around that fact: a firefighter who has had a heart transplant, fully able to do the job and welcomed back on the line.

There was a time when such an achievement would not have been possible, not because the firefighter in question was unable to do the job, but because employers had standards that would have specifically disqualified anyone having such surgery.

That was before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was made federal law in 1990.

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the ADA, it is worth taking a moment to consider its impact on the fire service.

Understanding the ADA

The intention of the ADA is to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA was the most significant recent addition to federal civil rights law.

The impact of the law has been far-reaching, from curb cuts on sidewalks, to sign language interpreters at all major events, to accommodations being made for learning disabilities in education. But the ADA has also had a huge impact on employment practices, and fire departments have had to do some major paradigm-shifting to keep up.

Giving legal recourse to potential firefighters with disabilities

There was a time in the fire service, not that long ago, when physical standards and qualifications were often arbitrary. Departments developed their own testing and evaluation processes for hiring, and those processes were not held to any particular standard of validation. Fire departments could decree that a candidate had to be a certain height, weight, body type or physical profile to be considered for hiring. Before the ADA, there was little pressure on departments to justify these standards.

But such arbitrary standards have always unfairly discriminated against otherwise qualified people. I remember two cases pre-ADA. One was a military veteran who had lost his lower leg in combat and used a prosthesis. Seeing him, you would never know he had this disability, and he competed in sports, climbed mountains and could keep up with any firefighter in terms of strength and fitness. Still, he was denied even the opportunity to test for the firefighter position based on his disability. When he insisted on taking the entry test against other candidates – even knowing that the department would not hire him – he was among the top finishers. At that point, the department gave him a second look, and hired him. But pre-ADA, he had no legal recourse against discriminatory treatment.

Another firefighter/paramedic candidate was eliminated from the hiring process because she was born with a deformed hand, and the hiring process stipulated that candidates must be able to do a “two-handed carry” of a stretcher. The candidate could carry any stretcher as well or better as any other applicant, but the technical lack of a second hand was fatal to the process. It took years for this deserving candidate to finally be treated for what she could actually do instead of what others perceived to be her abilities and limitations.

And that is the whole point of the ADA – to allow people to use the abilities they have so they may fulfill their greatest potential. People must be judged on what they can do, not on what others perceive their capabilities to be.

The ADA stipulates that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for people with recognized disabilities. Such accommodation might include allowing for variation in recognized techniques in accomplishing job goals. For example, forget the “two-handed carry”; just get the stretcher safely from Point A to Point B.

Forming a stronger, more inclusive fire service

The ADA is complex law and, being relatively recent, is still being refined in the courts. What conditions qualify as disabilities under the law? What constitutes reasonable accommodation? How are mental disorders categorized within the ADA? Are temporary disabilities different from permanent ones? Fire departments should rely on legal counsel when ADA-related issues arise.

But the intention of the ADA is simple and positive. Treat individuals as individuals, and let them achieve at their highest possible level. Don’t hold people down with negative stereotypes and expectations. Support people in being the best they can be, even against odds.

The truth is that most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives, either through illness, injury, or other factors. The ADA protects everyone and provides for a society that is more inclusive and stronger as a result.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.