CHICAGO (CBS) — One of the country’s largest childcare companies faces a discrimination claim out of Western Springs.

A deaf woman says she lost her job at Bright Horizons because they wouldn’t accommodate her disability during the pandemic. She shared her story with CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas.

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Brittani Edwards wishes she were caring for infants at her old workplace. Instead, we met in her lawyer’s office, typing out responses to McNicholas’ questions.

Edwards wrote that she can’t hear or speak well, “But I can read lips and use American Sign Language.”

“She has some limitations, and by working with babies who you don’t have to carry on a conversation, it was really a perfect job for her,” said employment attorney David Fish.

But last fall, Bright Horizons told Edwards she could not return from her pandemic furlough.
Thanks to the phone transcription service she uses, we got to see her manager’s explanation, which said in part, “We have to wear masks at all times…. We are not able to remove our masks to communicate with you….”

“We were shocked to hear that. There are so many accommodations that are available to people who are deaf and nonverbal,” Fish said. “So for instance today, I’m wearing a mask that you can see through, which can be used for lip reading.”

Edwards’ recent discrimination claim argues Bright Horizons violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law says employers must make reasonable accommodations and they must engage in a conversation with the employee to find those solutions.

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“The employer should have thought, how can we try to resolve this?” said disability rights attorney Barry Taylor of Equip for Equality, who is not involved in the case. “They could have said, ‘Well, we don’t see how you could come back to work given the mask mandate. Do you have any ideas?’”

Edwards’ manager went on to say: “Teachers are working split shifts. I am unable to put you in a classroom by yourself because of not being able to hear the children for safety reasons.”

Fish said they have accommodation ideas for that too, but the conversation hasn’t happened and Edwards is still fighting to get her job back.

“I was very hurt,” Edwards writes. “I was crying, and did not understand what’s going on. I thought that I did something wrong.”

Bright Horizons said they can’t comment on this specific case, but they always comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They said COVID has been a challenge, and it has forced them to make several changes at their centers.

This is Bright Horizons’ full statement:

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“We cannot comment on this specific situation as it is an active and pending case. What we can share is that this has been a trying and difficult time for the child care industry as we have had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and make changes at our centers to adjust to our health and safety practices. One of the changes we made was to eliminate the role of the resource teacher, a role that spent time in multiple classrooms every day, at all of our centers in order to keep consistent groupings of teachers and children throughout the day. Bright Horizons provides equal employment opportunities to any staff member with a disability by making reasonable accommodations and engaging in the interactive process.”

Tim McNicholas