Good intentions can be weaponized by a lack of empathy and understanding.
A lot of what constitutes disability discrimination could be see, in some light, as as simply looking out for people and caring. Keeping an employee with a back injury from using a machine that hurt him. Preventing an employee with pregnancy complications from lifting heavy boxes. This is paternalism.
The idea that we know better. But we don’t. Every time we make a decision that diminishes another person’s options because we think it’s too hard or too dangerous, we rob that person of opportunity. If we do it because we think that person has limitations due to a physical or mental condition, that’s frankly illegal discrimination.
You don’t have to be disabled to be treated like you are.
It doesn’t matter if the person is actually disabled. When people consider someone to be disabled, and we stop the person from doing work, that is a form of disability imposed on the individual by us, by our expectations, by our ignorance and hubris, and our lack of empathy.
This isn’t simply academic to the many people who are on the business end of the subtle discrimination of lowered expectations. Good intentions are weaponized by our lack of understanding and empathy.
Federal laws make it illegal for federal agencies not to hire individuals because of a paternalistic view of what that person is capable of. A couple of cases highlight how this works.
EEOC cases focus on what a person can do, not what the agency assumes.
In the recent case, Johana S. v. Department of Agriculture, EEOC Appeal No. 0120131804 (2016), the federal agency prevented one of its criminal investigators who had a severe back injury from working out in the field. Because she was not permitted to do part of her job, the agency lowered her performance evaluation. The EEOC found that this constituted illegal discrimination against the employee.
Even though the back injury itself did not qualify as a “disability” per se under the law, the anti-discrimination laws extend to protect those who are “regarded as” being disabled. This happens when employers believe and act as if the person had a physical or mental impairment that was substantially limiting. The Supreme Court has stated:
Such an impairment might not diminish a person’s physical or mental capabilities, but could nevertheless substantially limit that person’s ability to work as a result of the negative reactions of others to the impairment. School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987).
It is the reaction of the agency, not the capabilities of the person, that are limiting.
Agencies have to show a high probability of substantial harm before refusing to hire someone.
In an older case, the agency treated an applicant as if he could not work at all for the postal service, despite that the agency’s own doctor examined him and found that he was “normal in every respect” and had “no current physical limitations or restrictions.” Daniel McManaway v. United States Postal Service, EEOC Appeal No. 01993233 (2002). The EEOC found that this was also unlawful discrimination.
The EEOC rejected USPS’s argument that there was a possibility of injury to the applicant, and that was sufficient reason not to hire him. The EEOC instead found that unless an applicant has a “high probability of substantial harm” to himself or others (sometimes known as a ‘direct threat’), the agency is just relying on bare speculation about a future that is unlikely to occur. Part of the reason for the ADA and other anti-discrimination laws is to prevent employers from refusing to hire people because of their assumptions about what a person is capable of.
Paternalism is, unfortunately, alive and well. But every time we take action and do something about it, we shine light on a small corner of darkness.