For far too many years, people with sickle cell were denied the basic rights and fair treatment that every citizen deserves solely because of their condition. Now, with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is finally a route that people can use to rectify the discrimination they have faced. Knowing your rights is the first step to getting the treatment you deserve.

What Protections Do I Have?

The ADA bans discrimination against qualified people with disabiltiies in ALL aspects of employment, not just hiring and firing. This includes prohibiting discrimination in:

  • Job applications
  • Promotions
  • Pay
  • Training opportunities
  • Transfers
  • Sick leave
  • Vacation
  • Layoffs

This is just a sample of some of the actions that are protected, not an exclusive list. If you have been discriminated in your employment because of sickle cell, AND your employer has more than 15 employees, then you probably have a good case and should contact an attorney immediately.

But am I Disabled Because of My Sickle Cell?

The term "disability" has 3 definitions under the ADA:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of an individual's major life activities;
  • a record of such an impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

Basically, if your sickle cell has EVER greatly disabled you, the law will consider you disabled because of your disease. The "major life" activities the law talks about is very vague, and can cover almost any kind of impairment. Seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, doing any manual work, learning, sleeping, caring for yourself, having sex, and working are all considered major life activities (though many more may also qualify). So if your condition has ever substantially impaired any of these aspects of your life, then you are protected by the ADA. 

But what if your sickle cell disease has never disabled you? If an employer considers sickle cell disease a major impairment, even though your sickle cell is minor and fully controlled (and NOT impairing a major life activity), and he acts against you, the law does consider you disabled, even though you are not.  

Should I Tell My Employer That I Have Sickle Cell?

This is a difficult and personal question. The employer himself cannot ask you about your condition at all, nor about any results of your condition (i.e. he can't ask how much sick leave you normally take, or what medications you're on). The ONLY time the employer may inquire about it is if he has a direct reason to believe that your condition is posing a direct threat to safety of you and/or others, or if you have requested an accomodation and he wants to know why.  He can also ask about your capacity to do the job.

There is certainly no law forcing you to tell anyone about your problem, but of course the ADA will only protect you if the employer knows you are disabled.  You may want to educate others about the disease, or to show that you are just like anyone else. The main thing to keep in mind is that no one can take any discriminatory action against you because of your condition, so the choice of whether to tell or not is totally up to you.  

Reasonable Accommodations

If you qualify as disabled under the law, your employer is required to make reasonable accommodations that will allow you to work. The accommodation must be provided unless doing so would cause "undue hardship," defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.  

For example, the company might provide a special desk or chair that can ease pain in your extremities, or allow flexibility in your work schedule. They must do everything they can to help you, as long as it doesn't cost them too much money or producivity.  The courts will decide just exactly what qualifies as an "undue hardship" on a case by case basis.

I Have Been Discriminated Against Because of my Sickle Cell

Disability discrimination is a problem in today's workplace. A skilled employment attorney can explain all the remedies available to you, and if you want to proceed with legal action. If you have any reason to suspect that your (OR a member of your family's) sickle cell condition was behind your employers employment action, or if he has leaked information about your condition to anyone, you should contact an attorney as soon after the incident as possible (usually within 180 days!).