WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties and the ACLU of the District of Columbia filed an administrative complaint today with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal volunteer service agency that operates the AmeriCorps community service program. The complaint charges the agency’s health screening policy is unlawful and discriminatory.
The complaint was filed on behalf of 22-year-old Susie Balcom, a recent college graduate and two-term AmeriCorps state program alumna who received multiple offers to serve with the national program. After she completed the CNCS medical questionnaire, which included her mental health history, the offers were rescinded.
Balcom’s complaint was filed on behalf of all current and recent applicants for service positions with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps who either have or who were regarded as having a mental health disability as part of the CNCS health screening process. The complaint alleges the process violates the Rehabilitation Act, the federal law that prohibits disability discrimination by federal agencies, as well as CNCS’s own civil rights policy.
In April 2017, Balcom accepted a one-year position to serve as a support team leader, which would require her to coordinate logistics and trainings for members in the AmeriCorps office in Mississippi. In May, she was contacted by an AmeriCorps counselor who had additional questions regarding the three sessions of counseling she sought for anxiety. She explained that she had been sexually groped by a co-worker and had sought counseling for self-care. A few weeks later, AmeriCorps notified Balcom that she was disqualified from service because of the anxiety she had disclosed on the medical form.
“I am challenging AmeriCorps’ discriminatory health screening process so that no qualified American who wants to serve is turned away. Every young person who wants to give back to our country should have the opportunity to do so without fear of being rejected based on an irrelevant medical history or disability,” said Balcom. “I am a sexual-assault survivor and advocate. I should not be punished and denied the chance to contribute to my community for experiencing anxiety or seeking counseling that helped me move forward.”
AmeriCorps uses guidelines that discriminate against people with disabilities, including people with anxiety. The guidelines state that applicants should be deferred from service if they began therapy for anxiety within the past six months, despite the fact that people who seek therapy are often fully capable of service.
The CNCS medical questionnaire requires applicants to respond to a wide-ranging list of intrusive and overbroad medical questions. Applicants must disclose their medical history for the previous five years including, “dates, details of condition, treatment received, and current status” regarding ER visits, hospital admissions, and any treatment, therapy, counseling, or medication for any behavioral or mental health condition. The form requires applicants to “list all medications you are taking, including nonprescription drugs, vitamins, and herbal supplements,” and to state the dose, frequency, when first prescribed, and reason for taking.
“AmeriCorps does important work across the country, but to truly embody its mission and empower our communities, everyone must be given a fair chance to serve,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “The current policy is both intrusive and unlawful, and denies people with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in one of the country’s most respected community service programs. We are calling on the agency to recognize that its health screening process is discriminatory and must be changed.”
Other institutions that have engaged in similarly broad health screenings have been found liable for discrimination. A court concluded that the Peace Corps violated the Rehabilitation Act when it applied one-size-fits-all mental health screening guidelines instead of investigating whether applicants are qualified based on individual circumstances.
Balcom’s complaint asks CNCS to conduct non-discriminatory health screenings, reverse negative decisions about medical clearance where required by law, and provide an opportunity to serve with AmeriCorps as soon as practicable. It also asks the agency to change policies and procedures inquiring about and assessing applicants’ medical and mental health so that they no longer discriminate based on disability and sex.
The complaint can be found here:
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.