Discrimination at work is an enduring problem

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been the most encompassing yet confusing piece of civil rights legislation during the past two decades.

It’s also a passion of Chai Feldblum, one of five commissioners with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington. Feldblum was one of the architects of the original Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and later worked extensively on legislative amendments that greatly expanded the number of people who are now protected by the landmark legislation.

Feldblum was in Houston recently visiting the EEOC offices and spoke with the Chronicle’s L.M. Sixel about disability rights and other civil rights at work. Edited excerpts:

Q: Do enough workers know to ask for reasonable accommodations at their jobs?

A: I think the answer is no. They think that if they don’t use a wheelchair or aren’t blind or deaf, they don’t have civil rights.

Of course they have civil rights. If they have any medical condition that, without their medication or their devices, limits them in some major function, they are a person with a disability who has the right to ask for a reasonable accommodation.

Q: What would you like to do to spread the word?

A: I want to use the bully pulpit of being a commissioner to get out there to talk to both employers and employees about what the new ADA does for them and how this new law can hopefully encourage effective management.

If someone has a medical condition and because of that they’re not performing the job, their supervisor should say, "You aren’t performing well. Let’s have a discussion and if it’s because of a medical condition, you should know you have a right — I have an obligation – to see if I can reasonably accommodate you so you can perform up to standard."

Those conversations don’t happen. Employees don’t bring it up, and employers think they can’t talk about anything medical.

Q: Are companies spending enough money on training first-line supervisors about disability accommodations?

A: They don’t train the supervisors on how to handle those kind of requests if a person comes forward and says, "I have this medical condition, and it means I can’t be here at 9:30. Can we talk about a flexible schedule for me? Can I start at 10?"

Instead they say, "Oh no. We start here at 9:30."

I don’t think a case has been made to them that this is a cost-effective action. They think it’s a luxury to invest in the upfront training so supervisors know how to respond to these requests. And at a second level, how to open up a conversation if it looks like it might be something going on connected to a medical situation.

Q: The Civil Rights Act is 46 years old. Why are we still seeing nooses and other historic symbols of racism at work?

A: When the EEOC went into business in July 1965, the racism then was blatant and horrific. We have moved so much forward in some of those areas, which is why we have to deal with some of the new issues like religious discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think we have rid ourselves of racism and sexism. We haven’t. In fact, it’s even more dangerous now because people think we have overcome it. In the Atlanta office, someone told me they handled a segregated bathroom case.

Q: How about discrimination against Muslims? Has there been a spike?

A: The statistics show that discrimination has increased against Muslims both in straight-out harassment as well as accommodating folks who are Muslim.

To me the problem here is for the people who have not been brought up religious, and in particular who have not been brought up in a religion that requires you to act in certain ways like pray at certain times, not eat certain things and not work at certain times. People who don’t have that understanding of religion are not sympathetic to people who say I need to pray in this 45-minute window. They just kind of think: Well, just pray another time, get over it. They don’t get the sense of the commanded piece of this; that I’m commanded by God to pray during this 45 minutes.

As someone who grew up in a religious setting, I am very sympathetic. I get it in my gut. And I also understand there are employers and supervisors who don’t get it in their gut.

Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
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