- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Disability discrimination claims continue to dominate the agenda for Rhode Island’s human rights commission, as they have for the past two decades, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights received 371 new complaints of discrimination in the 2014 fiscal year, a 1 percent increase over the previous year, according to the report.

Of those claims, 169, or about 45 percent, contained an allegation of discrimination based on a physical disability, mental disability or both. Most were filed against employers, about 30 centered on housing issues.

The commission has consistently received more disability discrimination claims than sex, race or age discrimination complaints since the early 1990s, according to Michael Evora, the commission’s executive director.

“I think people are clear on what it means to discriminate on the basis of race,” he said. “When it comes to issues like reasonable accommodation, there’s a lot of confusion around exactly what that means.”

Lawmakers say the report points to a need for more education and outreach.

“If 45 percent of the complaints are alleged disability discrimination complaints, the question begs to be asked, do employers know what they need to, to provide for somebody who is an employee with disabilities,” said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, an advocate for the developmentally disabled. “Maybe they don’t know.”

The commission processed 376 cases in the 2014 fiscal year - most of those cases were filed that year, but some carried over from 2013. The commission closed 148 cases after finding no probable cause. Most of the remaining cases were settled or pursued in court; three were handled by administrative hearing, though none involved disability discrimination complaints.

The employers involved were not named in the report. The commission doesn’t publicly release information about a case unless an administrative hearing is held.

Evora would say, however, that the cases involved a variety of employers and it’s unusual for multiple disability discrimination complaints to be filed against the same company.

Some employers don’t know what it means to make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees with disabilities, or even what qualifies as a disability under the law, he added. Other cases involve employers allegedly not hiring or promoting someone, or firing an employee, because of a disability.

Staff from the commission hold informational sessions upon request in the community, for free. They conducted 46 sessions in 2014, reaching more than 1,000 people.

The commission’s annual budget is about $1.5 million, most of which is used for rent, salaries and benefits for the 14 staff members. Evora wants to do a public campaign so employers and housing providers understand their responsibilities and the public understands their rights, but said he doesn’t have the money in the budget to do so.

“The law itself is really strong in terms of what it provides and what it protects, so I think it really is more of a question of education,” Evora said. “It has got to be a concerted effort on the part of all of us, to reach out with whatever resources we have. So often in this time of diminished resources, most agencies find themselves just responding to situations.”

Rep. Joseph McNamara, chairman of the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, said employers need to be made more aware of the laws that prohibit discrimination. McNamara said he’d like to see the commission be more “proactive,” but thinks it could reach out to the business community within its existing budget.

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