Susie Balcom was overjoyed when she received a conditional offer to serve as a support team leader in Mississippi with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a national, residential service program for young adults. After graduating from college with a 4.0 GPA and spending two terms in the AmeriCorps state program, Susie was ready, willing, and able to fulfill her dream of serving in the national program.
However, a few weeks later, AmeriCorps NCCC told Susie that she was disqualified from the program.
As part of the application process, Susie completed a detailed medical questionnaire in which she disclosed that she had attended three counseling sessions for anxiety. When an AmeriCorps counselor contacted her for more information, she said she had sought counseling after she was sexually groped by a coworker. She also explained that she had continued to excel at school and work since the incident.
Susie had so much to offer to the communities that AmeriCorps served and knew that she could handle the rigors of the program. However, under AmeriCorps’ prior health screening guidelines, anyone who sought counseling for anxiety within the past six months was automatically deferred from serving with the program.
Susie was devastated — but also knew she would not give up without a fight. She wanted to make sure that moving forward, no AmeriCorps applicants would be unfairly shut out of serving.
With the help of the ACLU and the ACLU of D.C., Susie filed a class action complaint on behalf of herself and other applicants who were subject to the agency’s discriminatory screening process. Her complaint alleged that the screening process violated the Rehabilitation Act, the federal law that prohibits disability discrimination by government agencies (parallel to the Americans with Disabilities Act), and AmeriCorps’ own civil rights policy.
Susie’s perseverance paid off. Today the Corporation for National Community Service, the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps, and the ACLU announced a groundbreaking settlement. Under its terms, CNCS will overhaul its health screening process to ensure equal opportunities for everyone, including applicants with disabilities.
The revised health screening process will use a new questionnaire that focuses on whether applicants are able to perform the core functions of service with AmeriCorps, with or without reasonable accommodations. As a result, no applicant will be automatically shut out of service with the organization because of an actual or perceived disability, medical diagnosis, or treatment. In addition, AmeriCorps will institute a new formal system for applicants and current service members to request reasonable accommodations that will help them serve, such as access to mental health counseling via phone or videoconference.
AmeriCorps will also invite all class members who are still age-eligible to reapply, financially compensate those who applied and were not placed in the program, offer a professional development course to class members, and establish a recruitment program for people with disabilities. The organization will report to the ACLU for the next two years on how the new process is working.
“Community service is such an enormous part of my life, so I was shocked and disappointed when AmeriCorps disqualified me simply because I sought treatment for trauma,” said Susie. “I’m thankful for reaching this settlement —– not only for myself, but for the more than 1,650 other class members who were subjected to the previous health screening process, and all those who could have experienced discrimination in the future if it were not for these changes. It was over two years ago that my offer was rescinded, two years of reliving the disappointment, and two years of work with the ACLU. It’s all been worth it for this outcome.”
Qualified candidates like Susie who want to serve in AmeriCorps should have an equal opportunity to do so. Thanks to Susie’s willingness to stand up and fight back, all young people, with or without disabilities, will be treated fairly when they apply to serve their country through AmeriCorps NCCC.