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A Message from EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows for 2023 National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Last month was a time for retrospection as we marked the 50th Anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, observing the power of the disability rights movement and the courageous advocates who called for full and meaningful enforcement of the law.  This month, we recognize National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and recommit to harnessing the strength of that movement as we work to achieve equality for persons with disabilities in the American workplace.  This month’s theme, Advancing Access and Equity, inspires us to confront new accessibility issues raised by emerging workplace technologies, while redoubling our efforts to address longstanding barriers to workplace accessibility. 

Over the last year, as we reflected on the Rehabilitation Act’s 50-year milestone and the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA’s) 33rd anniversary, the EEOC focused its resources on both.  One example is the Commission’s systemic ADA case against Walmart Inc., which centers on ADA violations stemming from a nationwide online training required by the large retailer.  In this case, the EEOC alleges the retailer denied reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities during the online training (for instance, lack of an interpreter, assistive technology, and augmentative communication devices), and then fired those workers for not passing the training test.  Charging parties included a deaf employee and an employee with an intellectual disability—both of whom were denied accommodation and unlawfully discharged from jobs they loved and performed capably. 

The agency also adapted its resources to evolving challenges by filing its first ADA lawsuit involving Long COVID, when an appliance retailer refused to provide continuing leave or alternative accommodations for an employee whose COVID-19 developed into severe symptoms, including gastritis and vocal cord paralysis.  This employee, too, was unlawfully discharged from her job.  More broadly, in recognizing the pandemic’s enduring impact on many aspects of life, including the workplace, the Commission has identified employment discrimination associated with the long-term effects of COVID-19, including Long COVID, as a priority issue in the EEOC’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2024-2028 Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP).

Additionally, in the past year, the EEOC addressed leave as an accommodation in other contexts, such as in a systemic lawsuit against a non-profit that maintained inflexible leave and fitness for duty policies, again resulting in denial of accommodation and unlawful termination of workers with disabilities.  In another case, the Commission filed an amicus brief supporting an individual employee who sought intermittent leave as an accommodation for asthma.  The agency also achieved a substantial ADA resolution in a class case against a hospital healthcare system that denied a class of workers with disabilities other types of reasonable accommodations related to job performance, such as modified work schedules, job restructuring, or reassignment, leading to the discharge or constructive discharge of a class of employees.  In that case, the parties reached a four-year, $1.75 million settlement, and the employer agreed to review and update its policies to ensure compliance with the ADA and EEOC guidance.

The EEOC’s systemic and individual litigation efforts also included a sobering number of disability discrimination cases involving workers with hearing and visual disabilities.  Last month, in the agency’s disability discrimination lawsuit against Werner Trucking, a jury awarded over $36 million, when the company refused to hire or reasonably accommodate a qualified deaf driver.  The agency challenged a similar issue in a class case against the United Parcel Service (UPS), in which the EEOC alleged that UPS maintained a discriminatory policy of refusing to hire or reasonably accommodate deaf or hearing-impaired individuals for driver positions, even when authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  In a systemic lawsuit against Union Pacific Railroad, the agency alleged an ADA violation when the railroad company perceived as disabled, and effectively fired, qualified conductors and locomotive engineers who failed a color vision test that was not necessary for their jobs.  Strikingly, in the last year, the agency’s investigations have  uncovered disability discrimination against workers with hearing and visual disabilities in a wide variety of industries, workplaces, and jobs, including the retail industry, manufacturing, cargo handling, restaurant, fast food, staffing, non-profit, transportation and trucking, and the tech industry.

In addition to litigating and resolving charges, the EEOC worked tirelessly to prevent disability discrimination, promote legal compliance, and inform individuals of their statutory rights through robust technical assistance and updated resources:

  • On September 26, 2023, in commemoration of the Rehabilitation Act 50th Anniversary, the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) jointly released Employment Protections Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: 50 Years of Protecting Americans with Disabilities in the Workplace. This collaborative resource on federal sector and federal contractor recruitment, hiring, and employment of individuals with disabilities includes information about the Rehabilitation Act for both workers and employers—where to turn for help, examples of best practices, and links to relevant agency publications. 
  • On July 26, 2023, the date of the ADA anniversary, the EEOC released Visual Disabilities in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers topics such as how the ADA applies to job applicants and employees with visual disabilities, when employers may ask applicants or employees questions about their vision, how employers should treat voluntary disclosures about visual disabilities, and what types of workplace reasonable accommodations may be needed. This important resource also highlights new technologies for reasonable accommodation and describes how using artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms to make employment decisions can impact individuals with visual disabilities. 
  • On May 15, 2023, the EEOC updated its COVID-19 technical assistance, What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws, to incorporate information about Long COVID, such as common and low or no-cost possible accommodations. The update also includes tips for employers about remaining alert for COVID-related harassment of applicants or employees with a disability-related need to continue wearing a face mask or take other COVID-19 precautions at work.
  • On January 24, 2023, the EEOC released Hearing Disabilities in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which explains how the ADA applies to job applicants and employees who are deaf or hard of hearing or have other hearing conditions, outlines how certain pre- and post-job offer disability-related questions can violate the ADA, describes easy-to-access technologies that can make providing a reasonable accommodation for a hearing disability free or low-cost, addresses employer concerns about safety, and shares realistic scenarios of potential discrimination. Notably, it also provides new, updated examples that reflect available technologies.
  • The EEOC posted new video resources in ASL, including ones About the EEOC and explaining ADA Requirements for Workers with Hearing Disabilities.

The agency also continues its vigorous pursuit of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) and support for the President’s Executive Orders, including E.O. 14091, Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government (February 16, 2023), which, among other things, calls on federal agencies to use their respective civil rights authorities to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.  This month, the EEOC contributed to a training video on mental health and the federal workforce released by DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy in collaboration with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Access Board.  This important new resource and accompanying guide reinforces a federal sector commitment to fostering accessible workplaces, and highlights, among other things,  how the federal workforce is strengthened and enhanced when workers with mental health disabilities—or any disability—ask for what they need to be productive and feel supported at work.  A recent Commission report, The EEO Status of Workers with Disabilities in the Federal Sector, underscores the importance of this work to broaden opportunities for persons with disabilities in the federal sector.  The report finds that persons with disabilities are less likely than those without disabilities to be in federal leadership positions.  It recommends that agencies ensure retention of leaders with disabilities, as well as recruit such individuals as new hires into leadership positions. 

As both a federal employer and the federal agency charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, this National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the EEOC is pleased to join with the Biden Administration in working to advance equality for persons with disabilities throughout the federal workforce, including in federal leadership positions.  And we look forward to the day when persons with disabilities enjoy full inclusion and true equality in the nation’s workforce. 


Charlotte A. Burrows (she/her/hers)


U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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