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Disability Action Center NW

More disabled workers file discrimination claims in 2009

By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
More people with disabilities filed charges of discrimination against their employers last year than at any other time in the 20-year history of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Almost 21,500 ADA-related charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2009.

The main reasons for the increase: the recession and an amendment to the ADA that broadened the definition of what it means to be disabled.

“With the number of people being let go … people with disabilities are more in that direct line,” says Nicholas LaRocca, a vice president of theNational Multiple Sclerosis Society.

He says people with disabilities may be seen as less productive, which puts them more at risk of layoffs.

Besides being fired, complaints include being overlooked for promotion, not being switched to a job that matches the person’s abilities or not getting accommodations such as computer upgrades to be able to do a job.

The amendment, which took effect in 2009, undid limitations on the ADA by the Supreme Court in a series of rulings beginning in 1999, says Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The Supreme Court had restricted the reach of the ADA by excluding people whose disabilities were not visible or were controlled by medication, such as epilepsy or diabetes.

EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, who as an attorney helped draft the ADA and the amendment, says the change in the law helps everyone.

“You might not think you have a disability, but if you have a medical condition and you feel you are discriminated against based on that condition, then you are covered,” she says.

Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion for the Society of Human Resource Management, says employers fear more lawsuits because of the amendment, but those suits will further define the law.

“Employers shouldn’t look at the numbers and think, ‘Ooh, that’s scary,’ ” he says.

The EEOC concluded 18,776 cases last year; it tossed out 60% as having no basis under its rules. It says about half the rest ended in financial settlements or an outcome favorable to the worker.