Our Fight to Stop Discriminatory Screening Practices at AmeriCorps

Has your employer, school, or volunteer program ever required you to disclose all the medications you are taking – including birth control and antidepressants?  Have you been asked if you saw a counselor or if you visited a hospital in the last five years? 

Shockingly, AmeriCorps requires this information – and many more medical details – of all applicants to the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), the federal service program for young people ages 18 to 24.  Even worse, it rescinds offers it has given based on the information it receives, even when the applicant is qualified to serve.

This is what happened to Susie Balcom, who applied to join AmeriCorps NCCC during her last year of college.  With a 4.0 GPA, two successful terms with the state AmeriCorps programand a demonstrated commitment to public service, she received multiple offers from AmeriCorps in April 2017.  She accepted a one-year position to serve as a Support Team Leader, which would require her to coordinate logistics and trainings for corps members from the AmeriCorps office in Mississippi, starting in June.  Thrilled to be able to serve her country, she made plans to move and postponed the start of her graduate studies.   

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But in May, Susie was contacted by an AmeriCorps counselor about the health information form she was required to submit.  On the form, along with listing medical visits for strep throat and dehydration, Susie disclosed that she had gone for three sessions of counseling for anxiety.  The counselor asked her why she had experienced anxiety.  Susie explained that she had been sexually groped by a co-worker several months earlier and that she had sought out counseling to ensure her own well-being.  Susie continued to thrive in her academic and professional life following the incident.  Two weeks later, AmeriCorps notified Susie that she was disqualified from service.

More about the case

We investigated AmeriCorps NCCC’s health screening process and learned that thousands of applicants every year are required to fill out the intrusive and unnecessary health information form.  AmeriCorps NCCC also uses guidelines that discriminate against people with disabilities, including people it regards as having disabilities.  For example, the guidelines state that applicants must be deferred from service if they began therapy for anxiety within the past six months, and this was used against Susie. But people with mental health issues should not be punished when they seek therapy, because they often are fully capable of service.   

Other institutions that engaged in similarly broad health screenings have been found liable for discrimination.  For example, a federal court concluded that the Peace Corps violated the Rehabilitation Act’s prohibition on disability discrimination when it used one-size-fits-all mental health screening guidelines, instead of examining individual circumstances to determine whether an applicant is qualified to serve.  

Courts also have ruled that state bar associations, which grant licenses to attorneys, violate civil rights law when they asked questions like, “Have you within the past five years been treated or counseled for a mental, emotional, or nervous disorder?”  These questions impose burdens on applicants with disabilities that people without disabilities do not endure.  Health inquiries should instead be narrowly tailored to find out whether applicants have an existing condition that would actually interfere with their current ability to participate in the program.

Today, we filed a complaint on behalf of Susie with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps NCCC.  We are calling on the agency to recognize that its health screening process is discriminatory and must be changed.  In the meantime, we want to hear from other AmeriCorps applicants who believe they were treated unfairly in the health screening process.  Please share your story with us. 

AmeriCorps NCCC does important work around the country. But to truly empower communities, AmeriCorps must give everyone a fair chance to serve.

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TrumpAid it’s a...

If we don’t discriminate how are we gonna keep all the blacks and Mexicans out? We should be focused on how to keep those pesky Asians out. You know all of them get 4.0s. Gooks rule!

Anonymous

I am currently serving with NCCC and this is absolutely shocking to hear that they discriminate in this way considering who they accept and then allow to remain in this program. From the sounds of it, Susie was absolutely qualified(probably over-qualified if I'm being honest) for the position. There were people serving in our class for months that had severe health issues(both mental and physical) that disqualified them from even going out on projects, but were still allowed to remain in the corps.

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Anonymous

The same is true of the Peace Corps. Twenty or so years ago, my husband and I were all set to go overseas. I had discontinued taking an antidepressant the year before, and that was enough for them to kick us out, despite the opinion of multiple medical professionals that I would have no problem dealing with the rigorous conditions of the program. Still pisses me off to think about it.

Grumpy Old Lady

Something similar happened to a friend of mine. She quit her job and was just waiting on her assignment with the Peace Corps. It was about to come through but then several already serving had to be reassigned after an attack in Africa. This was around 1994-95. So, she was told she would have to wait another couple of months. Then, out of the blue, she developed diabetes and they rescinded the offer.

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Anonymous

I have done 2 900hr terms of service with americorp and worked side by side with people with mental health issues but i have experienced age discrimination you should not be told that your to old to serve especially when your in your 30s its not all americorp programs but its a lot of them

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Anonymous

This article is lumping all AmeriCorps into the practices of just one of its programs, and giving AmeriCorps a bad name. I manage an AmeriCorps state program in CA, and we would never, ever ask for or discriminate based on anyone's medical history. EVER. Part of our health insurance for those who serve includes mental health options, and we encourage our AmeriCorps members to take advantage of that. As the program manager, I even have an anxiety disorder myself, and have openly expressed that and have helped other members manage their anxiety.
I appreciate the work the ACLU does as a whole - I've donated money on a couple occasions - but this is honestly sloppy journalism. The practices NCCC is using to discriminate and screen their candidates is terrible, and not any I agree with, but PLEASE don't make it sound like all AmeriCorps programs are doing this. With the current political climate and threats of the entire network being cut from the federal budget, we can't afford any negative press, especially when it's over generalizing and not factual. Please - do your research, and know that the majority of AmeriCorps programs accept members from all sorts of backgrounds, medical histories, etc - and are doing incredible work.

Anonymous

I second this. I’m also involved with an AmeriCorps project, and this is something that varies widely. It seems like the one in question was an AmeriCorps state office, which should be handled for sure. However, all AmeriCorps projects are already struggling against a lot of misunderstandings, and making generalized statements like this makes it much harder to do our jobs. I appreciate the ACLU and support your efforts against discrimination (this one included). I would just appreciate it if you would handle the nuances with more care, because it can have far-reaching detrimental effects.

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