“Could having back problems be considered a ‘perceived’ disability?”

Question: My principal has put me on probation for not rising to his standards. I have taught for 32 years . . . 20 of them in this school district. If my contract is not renewed  . . . what can I do?

I am 53 and too young to retire early, which requires being 55 years old, when I could collect $780 a month, far less than I need.

Our problems began three years ago, when my back problems got out of hand . . . I had one minor surgery, and one major surgery. Can I get unemployment?

Help, I am in a panic!

Sincerely, C.K.
Vancouver, Washington

Answer: Dear C.K.:   

1. First, and above all else, DO NOT PANIC; by definition, it cannot help, but only hurt you. That is step one. Thinking clearly is not possible when you are in a panic. Acting wisely is not possible when you are in a panic. Take steps to reduce your anxiety, including exercise, prayer, meditation, or speaking with loved ones. Get a bit of extra sleep, if you can. This, above all else, is your number one task.  

2. From your letter, it seems you may have a basis for a claim for “perceived disability” discrimination. Your letter suggests that you believe your attending to your physical illness, and perhaps the principal’s view of how you handled it, may be the root cause of the problem. In the limited information available to me, it seems that you have always been a teacher who meets “standards,” and now believe your back problems, and your back surgeries, were the beginning of the problem with the principal. It is possible, too, that your principal came to view you at the time of your surgeries as ineffective, lazy, undependable, or being too sick for the job. If that is the case, you may well have a basis for a claim of disability discrimination. As a general rule, the law protects people not only who are disabled, but who are “perceived to be disabled.” In your case it is quite possible that (a) you were actually disabled three years ago, and (b) you are disabled – or are perceived by the principal to be disabled – today.     

3. Second, consider whether your school district, or your union (if you are a union member) have established procedures for filing such a grievance or claim. In an unobtrusive manner, if possible, try to find out if your school district or union have established procedures for filing a grievance of claim on this basis. If so, get the application materials, fill them out, and submit them. If there is no established procedure, then create one: write up and submit by email or FedEx a letter to the School Board President registering your protest against being treated in the way you have been all because you are perceived negatively due to your past – and perhaps present – back problems. As a general rule, an employer cannot be held responsible for discrimination of any kind unless you have made it aware of the problem by filing a complaint. Do this as soon as possible.  

Should you want a Model Letter for Complaining about illegal discrimination that you can adapt to your particular facts, events and circumstances, just [click here].  

4. Fortunately for you, Washington State law defines “disability” discrimination to include “perceived” disabilities. Under Washington State law, “disability” is defined as “the presence of a sensory, mental, or physical impairment that is medically cognizable or diagnosable, or exists as a record or history, or is perceived to exist whether or not it exists in fact.”

5. Third, after filing a disability discrimination complaint with your School District, file a disability discrimination complaint with your State Human Rights Commission. Fortunately for you, the Washington Human Rights Commission has a very user-friendly website that makes filing a complaint of disability discrimination pretty easy. Its website address is www.hum.wa.gov. and the forms to file a complaint are all there, online.

6. As to unemployment, if your contract is not renewed for “not meeting standards,” I believe you will quite likely be deemed eligible for unemployment benefits. From everything I have read on the website of the Washington State Employment Security Department – www.esd.wa.gov considering your facts and circumstances, you would seem to qualify for benefits.

C.K., make a plan, and then follow that plan, and you’re much more likely to reach a positive goal. I am certain that, so long as you do not panic, things will work out for you far more than you expect. With all your experience as a teacher, if I was a betting man, I would bet on you!

Thanks for writing in. I’ll say an extra prayer for you.  

Best,
Al Sklover

 Repairing the World –
One Empowered and Productive Employee at a Time ™

© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.