A young interns Perspective on Disability Discrimination

fall_2005_lesson5_post1940_clip_image002_0009-224x30016 years, 144 months and around 4,500 days. In my 21 years of life this is the amount of time I have spent in school. Throughout these years there have been countless exams, hundreds of teachers I have had either the privilege or disadvantage of encountering and endless hours studying information that practically vanished into thin air the moments upon finishing an exam. Needless to say school wasn’t something that was always easy but something I have worked hard to succeed at. However the lessons you are taught in a structured classroom can barely compare to the experience of what you learn upon entering the real world.

As an undergraduate student at Quinnipiac University I had very little idea what to expect coming into my very first internship let alone working in an area of law I knew minimal about. Yet within two months I may have learned more valuable information than what could have been ever taught to me within the walls of a school setting. You can read every book you’re instructed to, memorize all the definitions you need to and receive the best grades on tests and quizzes but where does that leave you in preparation for the real world? I quickly was able to find out coming into the Employee Rights office. As an outsider I had assumed it was all quite simple, employees have the rights to be treated equally and fairly and any situation where they were not treated properly resulted in an employment lawyers involvement.

One of the most interesting areas of employment law that I have continuously grown fascinated with is disability discrimination. Within the first few weeks interning at this office I was able to witness a client who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The client found employment at a company who hired him despite knowledge of this disability. Looking past these differences, the company was able to employ him doing much of the same tasks any person without this disability would have been able to do. However upon new management he was suddenly found as not being “fit” for the job and that in order to maintain him as an employee it would fall outside reasonable measures. Something I was completely unaware of prior to entering this office is that in the state of Connecticut in a situation with a person that has a disability, the employer must provide reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations. This standard extends until it would create an “undue hardship” on the behalf of the employer. An undue hardship takes into account extensive costs, outcomes impacted by the accommodation and resources available.

Sitting there in the deposition alongside this client I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed to how naive I had been to the discrimination that is faced in the employment world. It was entirely evident that this individual had suffered from a disability, however his ability to live his life and perform tasks that I could do should not be belittled by an uncontrollable physical factor that he has been forced to live with. It is so easy to judge someone by their flaws or disabilities but had the employer given even the slightest effort to communicate and accommodate for this client they would’ve opened their eyes to see a smart man. This smart man who not only has received his bachelor’s degree but who was also well aware of the discrimination he had been faced with and who knew full well that he was more than capable and willing to perform the job (he had done so for a year prior to the new owners) but then to be judged and terminated based on nothing more than his physical disabilities. I felt this mans pain.

What I learned in real life is that no amount of studying and exams can prepare you for the injustices that I had no idea occurred in the workplace.  They cannot prepare you for the emotional side of those injustices or that you may carry those persons hurt and despair inside of you.  It doesn’t teach you about the fire it is going to ignite inside of you and the passion it is going to fill you with to want to right that wrong.  Working with Employee Rights has educated me, not with books, not with exams, not with lectures, but it taught me that law is only a reference.  It is everything else that makes you a good lawyer.  It is the compassion, caring the determination to fight for someone who has been wrong.  It is standing up for others who could not stand up for themselves.  It is leaving your heart and soul in a legal brief that you were taught with books and lectures to construct, but not taught anything about what it really takes to fill those pages.