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Human Resources

Judge Employees on Abilities, Not Disabilities

judge employees by their abilities, not disabilities

Just because someone has a disability or disabilities doesn’t mean they can’t perform a job. Don’t let stereotype-based assumptions enter into decisions about a person’s ability.

Case #1

Akeena Solar, an alternative energy company, paid $30,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit in 2010. In violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the company allegedly fired an employee on her first day of work, after learning she was paralyzed in the left arm.

Gladys Tellez was hired by Akeena Solar as a payroll/accounts technician. Despite her termination, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation found Tellez was fully qualified and capable of performing the job.

In addition to the monetary award, the settlement required the company to provide training and educational measures to help prevent disability discrimination.

“All too frequently, the mainstream public, including employers, perceive people with disabilities through a filter of myths and stereotypes, instead of assessing each person on their own terms,” said EEOC Attorney William Tamayo. “In Ms. Tellez’s case, she was not even given a full day to prove herself.”

Case #2

A federal jury in Tennessee awarded nearly $41,000 in another case involving a man who suffered from diabetes.

Kevin Armstrong applied for a position as a baggage handler with Northwest Airlines. He received a conditional job offer from the airline and passed a pre-placement physical.

After the physical, however, a physician under contract to Northwest learned that Armstrong was diabetic and dependent on insulin injections for survival. Shortly after the physician’s discovery, the airline withdrew the job offer.

The EEOC filed suit against Northwest on behalf of the job applicant, alleging the airline violated the ADA by discriminating against a diabetic.

Northwest argued there was no violation of the ADA because Armstrong was a threat to himself and others as a result of his medical condition. (Under some circumstances, the ADA permits employers to exclude individuals who pose such a threat.)

However, the jury rejected the airline’s contention and awarded $19,250 in compensatory damages and $21,000 in back pay.

Threat of Harm

The ADA prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, promoting, compensating and training based on disabilities. This applies to recruitment, advertising, tenure, layoffs, leave, fringe benefits and other employment activities.

Under some circumstances, the ADA lets employers exclude individuals with disabilities who pose a threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.

However, an employer can’t simply assume that a threat exists. The employer must use objective, medically supportable methods to establish that there is a “significant risk” that “substantial harm” could occur.


-Avoid making assumptions and basing employment decisions on stereotypical ideas of an applicant’s disability. Base decisions on actual abilities.

-Use verifiable facts and solid scientific evidence to determine that an employee or applicant is incapable of safely and effectively performing a job.

-Compile sufficient information to support these decisions. Documentation helps your company ensure that it isn’t falling prey to unlawful stereotyping.

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