Employers are legally barred from firing an employee with a disability solely because of that disability, if that employee can adequately do his job with reasonable accommodations. However, only a handful of states have laws that prevent an employee from losing her job because she was stalked or attacked at work, or because an employer finds out she has been victimized and fears that her abuser will take such an action. Even if you are working for or with a government agency, it is very possible to face discrimination for simply being a victim of abuse. I was once barred from any further contact with the dozens of children I was working with because the agency referring children to my program found out that I had been sexually abused, and I was told that it was “unsafe” for me to continue working with children. The implication was that my having been abused made me a potential abuser. Despite the fact that this was a government agency with firm non-discrimination policies, my pleas for the well-being of the children and to not be discriminated against based on acts committed against me fell on deaf ears, as did the poignant words of a former program participant, who passionately proclaimed that, “You have to fight this. You know these kids have nothing else.”
Just a couple of years after dozens of victimized children and I were punished because of the prejudices of this particular agency, I began looking for my own apartment. I fell in love with one apartment complex, which was beautiful, affordable, and less than a block away the beach. The landlord and I seemed to bond quickly, and I disclosed that I was concerned about an abuser being able to access my apartment, and asked him about the security of the building. He stated that he didn’t want to deal with this situation, and refused to rent me the apartment. Additionally, in most states, landlords can financially penalize a tenant for needing to break a lease to escape from an abuser.
Two of the biggest challenges when trying to escape from an abuser are securing safe housing and achieving financial stability. We, as a society, largely bar abuse survivors from housing and employment and then, question why so many wind up homeless or return to an abuser. I will never understand the blatant prejudice, but I understand the concern of some employers and landlords about a violent situation spilling over into a workplace or apartment complex and resulting in property damage, scaring off customers, or endangering other workers, clients or residents, but this fear should instigate a process of making appropriate accommodations for the abused person to protect them and others. Just as an employer might need to install wheelchair ramps for a disabled worker, she might need to install panic buttons or allow a worker to change his phone number often if his abuser still poses a threat. If we truly want to stop abuse, we must make society welcoming and inclusive for those who have been abused.
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