Breaking Down Barriers to Employment for Individuals with Disabilities

October 14, 2015

Courtesy of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eve Hill of the Civil Rights Division

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Civil Rights Division is highlighting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a gateway to equal opportunity in the workplace.  Work is a fundamental part of adult life for people with and without disabilities.  It provides a sense of purpose, shaping who we are and how we fit into our community.  Meaningful work – being a contributing part of society – is essential to people’s economic self-sufficiency, as well as self-esteem and well-being.  This year, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA, the Department of Justice is breaking down barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities through its enforcement efforts.

Enforcing Title I of the ADA against State and Local Government Employers

State and local governments play a significant role in our workforce and can be leaders in employing the skills and talents of American workers with disabilities.  This year, the department has reached agreements with a number of state and local government employers to remove discriminatory attitudes and barriers in the job application process.

Just this month, the department settled an employment lawsuit against Riverside County, California.  The county had refused to hire an applicant as a youth probation officer because he had controlled epilepsy, even though the applicant could perform all of the essential job duties.  The county’s decision, which was based on outdated and stereotypical attitudes about epilepsy, was illegal.  Under the consent decree, the county has agreed to pay the job applicant $50,000, offer the probation officer position, train its hiring personnel on the ADA and report on compliance.

Earlier this year, the department reached settlements with six different municipalities to remove illegal disability-related questions on employment applications.  Under the ADA, employers may not ask disability-related questions on an employment application because those questions may deter people with disabilities from applying for jobs, and employers may use that information to discriminate against such applicants.  An employer may, however, ask applicants if they are able to perform specific job tasks.  The following six different municipalities and one state university from across the country have now removed the disability-related questions from their online employment applications: Parowan, Utah; Ruidoso, New Mexico; Fallon, Nevada; Isle of Palms, South Carolina; Vero Beach, Florida; DeKalb, Illinois; and Florida State University

As a result of these and other Title I enforcement actions by the department, individuals with disabilities now have a fairer chance to succeed at work, and both justice and economic advancement are served.

Enforcing Title II of the ADA regarding Integrated and Supported Employment Services by States

The department has in recent years been engaged in aggressive efforts to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C., a ruling that requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities.  Through this work, the department has advanced the civil rights of thousands of individuals with disabilities who have been unnecessarily segregated in employment settings called sheltered workshops.  Sheltered workshops are institutional settings where participants are segregated from the community and paid well below the minimum wage.  Just last month, the department and private plaintiffs reached a groundbreaking agreement with the state of Oregon to resolve the federal lawsuit Lane v. Brown.  Under the settlement agreement, over 6,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities will receive supported employment services to give them opportunities to work in real jobs at competitive wages. 

These and other efforts are leading to reform of state systems; a number of states are moving away from using sheltered workshops in favor of expanding supported employment for people with disabilities, to better provide integrated employment opportunities. 

Through its vigorous enforcement, the department is helping to fulfill the ADA’s promise of equal employment opportunity and full inclusion.

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Updated October 14, 2015