Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Verizon Settles A Disability Discrimination Employment Suit For US$20 Million

The US EEOC announced that telecommunications company Verizon settled a disability discrimination lawsuit. The suit alleged that Verizon unlawfully denied reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA) for hundreds of its employees. They settled for US$20,000,000. That seems like a great win. Yet there’s a part of me that is really worried about the impact on the hiring of people with disabilities in other companies.

In short, Verizon had strict attendance policies and didn’t allow more than a certain number of absences. If you had to take more time because you were sick or had to go to the doctor, and that pushed you over the limit, you got the sack. There was no flexibility in the policy for people with disabilities who may need more medical leave. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, should they require it. Being flexible on the limit of leave days is a reasonable accommodation. This lack of flexibility affected hundreds of employees from the over 194,000 staff Verizon has. It also resulted in many people being disciplined or terminated.Verizon settled.

I’m happy that discriminatory practices were addressed. I’m glad that a large company was taken to task and hope this will change how things are done within Verizon – despite the legal obligations, increased training, etc, I’m not convinced the corporate culture will change very fast. But that’s another story entirely.

On the other hand, I’m very concerned about what is happening here. One of the reasons I heard most from employers refusing to hire people with disabilities is that "they are sick more often and miss too much work". Disability rights advocate have been countering that having a disability doesn’t mean that we’re sick. We’re not sick any more than the average person. The Verizon settlement blows that argument right out of the water!

So, ok, an employer has to abide by the law and provide reasonable accommodation to their employees with disabilities. If they employee needs more medical leave than the employment contract provides, the employer should be flexible. That’s fine and good.

The problem appears when the employer never hires an individual with a disability because they perceive this person is going to be absent from work more than an individual without a disability. Sure, there are anti-discrimination regulations in the recruitment/hiring process. But it’s much easier to get around these. And also much harder to prove discrimination in hiring practices.

So, yeah. Momentous "win" against a big corporations for people with disabilities. But I’m really concerned it will have negative repercussions.