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I have written several articles about people being fired or arrested while having seizures. As a result, I have received several emails from readers and close friends asking: “How can it be legal in the United States of America to fire someone for epilepsy?”

It isn’t. But up until very recently it was. Here’s how it came to happen.

In 1924 sterilizing epileptics was all the rage. Three thousand people were involuntarily sterilized in the United States — 2,500 in California alone (1) based on a system designed by one Harry Laughlin. In a continued effort to get rid of “defective persons,” Virginia sought to follow California’s lead and a seventeen-year-old girl named Carrie Buck was chosen to be the first citizen of that state to be sterilized under the program.

Witnesses were called to give evidence of Carrie’s “feeble-mindedness,” and “defects.” Albert Priddy, Superintendent of the Virginia Colony where Carrie was living, testified that she had “a record of immorality, prostitution, untruthfulness and syphilis.” Harry Laughlin himself, though he had never met Carrie, telegrammed of her “moral delinquency.”

The case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There, the renowned Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. wrote the formal opinion: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Fifty years later — after hearing this propaganda repeated for five decades — we as a nation were pre-programmed to wish these people employed elsewhere. We wanted them gone. We had been told by our betters that they were “manifestly unfit” to be around us by people like Oliver Wendell Holmes, after all.

As a result, epileptics were treated badly. We were fired and we wanted to know why. And, after the Americans with Disabilities Act was finally signed into law, some of us sued. A funny thing happened: We lost.

The “Sutton Trilogy” (2) was a series of three cases that came up to the Supreme Court on the same day in 1999. In short, the highest court in the land decreed that since Epilepsy (and diabetes, and some others problems) can be controlled with medication, they are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act — even though one in five Epileptics are never controlled.

The court went on to say that because seizures are so short, one can’t really say that an epileptic is actually “disabled” (3).

For the next decade any epileptic who tried to sue for unfair treatment found his case thrown out of court. It was now absolutely legal to openly fire someone for “being epileptic.” I can say that. I myself have been fired for having epilepsy. More than one person has looked me in the eye and told me that “epileptics just can’t work here.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that President Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, restoring the rights of people with epilepsy to protection under the ADA (4).

I know it may seem unreal — or un-American — to those who don’t have seizures, but just a few short years ago we all lived in fear of having a seizure at the office and being fired. There was absolutely nothing we could do about it — and we knew it. Our bosses didn’t even have to lie or make up an excuse. They just looked at us and said, “You’re scaring the customers.” That was it.

I wish everyone would have a seizure, just once, so they could understand what we go through. No, in all honesty, I don’t. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But it’s hard being fired for falling down.

1 – http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html
2 – http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/supreme_court.html
3 – http://dredf.org/publications/mayerson_2.html
4 – http://www.end-epilepsy.org/public/File/Employment_and_ADAA(2).pdf

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