EEOC: Myths, Fears of Mental Disabilities a Barrier

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Mar 17, 2011
“People with mental disabilities can work and want to work, just like everyone else,” said Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), during a public meeting on the employment of people with mental disabilities held March 15, 2011. “It’s a win-win situation when employers figure out how to tap that work potential.”

Yet that sentiment is not shared by all hiring managers, some of whom might not be aware of how bias is affecting their decision-making, she said. “One of the biggest obstacles to employment is consciously and unconsciously held beliefs about people with psychiatric, cognitive or intellectual disabilities,” said Ruby Moore, executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office, in her testimony.

The EEOC meeting “provided an important opportunity to dispel myths and learn about effective ways to dismantle barriers to employment for people with disabilities,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien.

And according to the EEOC, a chief misapprehension about the employment of people with psychiatric disabilities is a fear that they are violent. Psychologist Gary R. Bond of the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center of Dartmouth Medical School told the commission that “a very low proportion of people with mental illness have a history of violence, and, overall, people with mental illness are no more likely to behave violently than people without mental illness.

“Being employed significantly reduces the possibility of violence,” Bond added.

Yet the unemployment rate for individuals with psychiatric disabilities is not only low compared to the general population, it is also half the employment rate for people with other sorts of disabilities, the EEOC noted in a statement.

Work Aids Recovery

This is particularly troubling because the lack of employment has a particular impact on individuals with psychiatric disabilities for whom work is “a crucial element in the recovery process,” according to Bond.

“Work commands respect, and it represents agency, responsibility and independence,” said

Samuel R. Bagenstos, principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Work is the place where people with and without disabilities can come together, share common projects and break down barriers of stereotype and prejudice.”

“Working hard was a way that I could feel good about myself, and no one could take it away,” testified Donna Malone, a person with a psychiatric disability. Yet after working for a number of years at Land Air Express without incident, Malone was discharged while hospitalized for her disability because her supervisor had a “gut feeling” that she was a “danger” and had to “look out for the safety of his other employees.” A lawsuit by the EEOC alleging failure to accommodate and discriminatory termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) resulted in a settlement for Malone of $360,000.

Tenesha Abbott, who has an intellectual disability and learning disabilities, testified that her job at a grocery store helps her “stay active and learn new things.” Her manager, Jack Eaton, said that dealing with people’s individualized needs, as he does with employees with mental disabilities, makes him a better manager for all of his employees.

Societal Stigma

“The voices of individuals with mental illness have been quelled because of the stigma that society has placed on the disease,” said Anupa Iyer, a law student at the University of Seattle and an intern at the EEOC, who described work as her “salvation” after she had been hospitalized for a psychiatric disability. Yet Iyer endured ridicule and stigma, including being called “crazy girl”—experiences that subsequently motivated her to enroll in law school.

“Because of my mental illness, I need small accommodations, such as the ability to leave work early once a week to see a therapist and occasionally a day off when I am struggling with depression,” Iyer said. “This doesn’t mean that I can’t do the job, that I am incapable of working hard or that I am stupid.”

“The role for employers in the employment of people with serious mental illness is straightforward,” Bond said. “Employment practices that promote the employment of this group are consistent with good employment practices and include the hiring of people on the basis of qualifications and not on the basis of stereotypes, providing consistent and supportive supervision [and] ensuring that the workplace is not a hostile environment for any employee.”

“It is apparent that persons with intellectual disabilities as well as those with mental illness have not been considered part of the workforce to date,” noted William E. Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University Center on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Children’s Hospital Boston, in written testimony.

He added: “The looming workforce shortage in the coming years is a clear sign that our workforce cannot continue to ignore this heretofore untapped labor supply.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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