Is a deaf person qualified to be a wave pool lifeguard? Before answering, consider that the lifeguard holding the record for most “saves”–more than 900–is Leroy Columbo, who was a deaf man.

In Keith v. County of Oakland (6h Cir. January 10, 2013), the plaintiff, deaf since birth, had completed the County’s lifeguard training programs with the assistance of an American Sign Language interpreter to communicate verbal instruction, applied for a position with the County as a wave pool lifeguard, and was offered a position, subject to passing a medical examination from a County-appointed physician.

According to the court, at the medical examination, after reviewing the plaintiff’s medical history, the physician stated: "He’s deaf; he can’t be a lifeguard." When Keith’s mom questioned this, the physician responded, again according to the court: "Well, I have to. I have a house and three sons to think about. If something happens, they’re not going to sue you, they’re going to sue the county, they’re going to come after me."

Keith was not hired and he sued. The district court held that he was not “otherwise qualified” because he was unable to show that he could perform the essential communication functions of a lifeguard, with or without accommodation and granted summary judgment to the County. The Sixth Circuit reversed this holding because it found that Keith had shown that a reasonable accommodation was possible and that questions of fact remain as to whether Keith is “otherwise qualified.”

The court noted that the most compelling evidence to suggest that a deaf individual may be "otherwise qualified" is the fact that the American Red Cross certifies deaf lifeguards and that Gallaudet University, a university dedicated to serving the needs of deaf individuals, has a lifeguard certification program. And, of course, there’s Leroy Columbo.