3 Disabilities You Didn’t Know Were Protected Under EEO Laws

Research shows that consumers both with and without disabilities favor businesses that employ people with disabilities, and that people with disabilities can provide businesses with the flexible, innovative thinking required for a competitive edge in the 21st century.

— Anupa Iyer and Sharon Masling, from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

You’re aware Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace because of a disability. Specifically, the laws state:

  • Employers cannot discriminate based on a disability during the hiring process
  • When asked, employers must provide reasonable accommodations
  • Employers cannot harass or retaliate against an employee requesting an accommodation because of their disability
  • Employers cannot discriminate against an employee because of their relationship with a person who has a disability

Yet every year, thousands of claims are filed against employers for violating EEO laws related to disabilities. In fact, in 2014 alone, there were 25, 369 claims filed. And out of all the EEO claims filed since 2010, 25 percent or more are disability claims.

Part of the problem might be a lack of understanding about the different types of disabilities.

Defining Disability

Most people are aware of visible disabilities are covered. But that’s just one of the ways the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEO) defines a disability.

According to the EEOC, a disability is defined under the American’s with Disabilities (ADA) and ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) as:

  • A physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking or hearing)
  • A history of a disability (such as cancer that is in remission)
  • A physical or mental impairment that is not temporary (about six months or less) and minor

Let’s examine three disabilities you might not know are protected under EEO laws, examples of the consequences for violating these laws and the training best practices to help you create an inclusive workplace for all your employees.

1. Infertility/Pregnancy

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Additionally, if an employee can’t perform her job because of pregnancy, she needs to be treated the same as any other employee that’s temporarily disabled.

If she’s not, here’s an example of what can happen.

Hawaiian resort retailer Step Three harassed and disciplined an employee when she informed her superiors that she was starting treatments for infertility. Then, when she told them of her pregnancy and travel restrictions, she was fired.

The lawsuit was resolved with a $60,000 payment to the employee and a major overhaul of the company’s anti-discrimination policies and procedures.

Timothy Riera, from the EEOC’s Honolulu office, commented on the case stating, “Federal law protects workers who are discriminated against due to their infertility, a covered disability. Workers who undergo fertility treatments should be treated like any other employee with a disability.”

2. Diabetes

When changes were made to the ADAAA, it became clear that diabetes met each of the criteria for a disability. Under the laws, Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes are covered and employers need to offer reasonable accommodations.

Because when they don’t, something like this might happen.

Walgreens fired a woman for eating a $1.39 bag of chips before paying. Only, the woman ate the bag of chips to stab stabilize her blood sugar level during a hypoglycemic attack – related to her Type 2 Diabetes. And tried to pay for it after the fact.

When the EEOC sued for disability discrimination, Walgreens agreed to pay her $180,000 and implement anti-discrimination training.

3. Severe/Morbid Obesity

Severe obesity as a disability under EEO laws is hotly debated but nonetheless is still a covered disability.

One of the first discrimination cases related to severe obesity as a disability was filed in 2010 and settled in 2012 with Resources for Human Development, a treatment facility for chemically dependent women, paying an employee that was fired $125,000.

Commenting on the case, EEOC General Counsel David Lopez stated, “All people with a disability who are qualified for their position are protected from unlawful discrimination. Severe obesity is no exception.”

Another case was settled for $55,000. This time BAE Systems paid an employee who was fired because of his disability – morbid obesity.

As you can see from these two cases, employees that are morbidly obese, as long as they are qualified to perform their jobs, should be given reasonable accommodations.

Train Your Company on EEO Laws

In most cases, companies are required as part of the settlement process to implement educational programs and training. But why wait until you’re facing a lawsuit to train employees and supervisors?

To ensure you’re in compliance, get employees trained now. A good training program should cover the following:

  • The legal definition of a disability
  • Types of disabilities covered under the laws
  • When reasonable accommodations are required
  • Examples of appropriate reasonable accommodations
  • Clarifications for keywords such as undue hardship and essential tasks
  • How to comply during interviewing, performance reviews and discipline

Key Takeaways

Infertility, pregnancy, diabetes, and severe obesity are just a few of the lesser-known disabilities protected under ADA, ADAAA, and EEO laws; there are many more. That’s why it’s important for your company to train employees on the details of the various laws.

And once you know what’s covered and how to make reasonable accommodations, you’ll be well on your way to creating an inclusive work environment.

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