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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Anonymous

So, its like joining the military. I was asked all that both time I tried to enlist and turned down the second time because I had been diagnosed with chronic migraines which I had the 1st time I joined but hadn't been diagnosed with. Government programs have regulations and have to consider the efficient use of tax dollars.

NCCC Alum

I was NCCC class of 95-96 we went through proper military entrance processing -MEPS and were told it was standard. I personally answered questions I should not have been asked but was barely 18 at the time and didn't know I the right not to answer.
It's unfortunate you are wasting time and resources on this when with all the cuts this program will undoubtedly be gone soon. A*NCCC changed my life. The experiences gained pushed me into a new socioeconomic class which I am doubtful I would have made it into if not for those experiences. I love the fact that, while not someone cut out for military service, I was still able to serve my country.

Anonymous

As someone who has been told I'm medically unfit to be hired for the exact same job I've been doing for them for five years on consultancy contracts in remote hardship locations and refugee camps across the Middle East and Africa, getting excellent performance reviews, this hits close to home. Good luck with this case, and thank you!

Anonymous

Hired as actual staff, I mean...

Barbara

If a person is going to have a drug test, all medications have to be listed. Otherwise, false positives/negatives can result. Also if a person takes something like valium as part of an Epilepsy protocol, it has to be listed. Otherwise, a person is suspected of drug use. Apparently, the person with Epilepsy would not be accepted even if it is completely controlled. Epilepsy is something people fear. I have it. My family fears my disorder. Can we sue them, please?(lol)

Anonymous

I have epilepsy and did two years. That's why I find this story so hard to believe. I also have depression. I served as a responder to Hurricane Sandy which was pretty freaking traumatic. There is a reason they ask these questions, I assure you. However I don't think the full story is being told here.

Barbara

Blindness: I have seen blind people walk all over NYC, cross the street, go up and down subway steps, stand on the subway platform, grocery shop, etc. I bet a blind person would be disqualified even if the very brave person could do a job. We really need to look at this disability issue in a larger way. We have amputee athletes who use prosthetics to compete in track and field events. Helen Keller endured and overcame stress. She became more successful than most of us could ever hope to be.

Anonymous

I don't personally know about blind people but I know americorps accommodates for deaf and hearing impaired

Anonymous

I'm not sure about you, but I don't think a blind person would be able to safely undergo chainsaw training. You should read more about NCCC and what they do. It's not even about whether or not they can do A job. Corps Members do ALL OF the jobs. In my year we mucked and gutted homes and rebuilt them. We used saws and sledgehammers to knock down homes that had been destroyed in disaster. We painted and roofed dozens of homes, did trail work, built wheelchair ramps, etc. And these were just the main projects, not even counting ISPs.

Anonymous

I agree with their practices. They're not saying people with mental health problems or those who seek counseling can't join, because many have, including myself. I take this to mean it may not be best if you just started counseling within the last 6 months, and you should take more time to figure everything out and apply next year so you can gain proper coping mechanisms. You can't find out much in less than 6 months of counseling. NCCC is by far the hardest AmeriCorps program I've done. People need to be prepared mentally and physically. I think this is their way of encouraging

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