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The Risky Relationship Between High School Diploma Requirements and the ADA

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published an informal letter in November 2011 that discussed how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to qualification standards for hiring. The letter raised conjecture about employers requiring high school diplomas for employment and whether such a requirement violates the ADA.

The EEOC has clarified the following on the issue:
  • It is not illegal for employers to require high school diplomas. However, if a job applicant claims a disability prevented him from obtaining a diploma, the employer should allow the applicant to demonstrate qualification for the job in some other way. Work experiences in similar jobs or demonstrating that he or she can perform the job's essential functions are possible alternatives.
  • Employers may require an applicant protected by the ADA to demonstrate through appropriate documentation that he or she has a disability and that the disability prevented the applicant from meeting the high school diploma requirement.
  • Employers are not required to hire persons with disabilities. Employers may still choose the best qualified person for the job even if the applicant with a disability demonstrates the ability to do the job through some means other than possession of a high school diploma.
According to the EEOC, just like all other informal discussion letters, the letter applies existing standards under the ADA and the EEOC's regulations to help employers comply with the law.

This is not the first time a high school diploma requirement has been questioned as a possible violation of discrimination laws. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a high school diploma requirement was discriminatory because of its disparate impact on African-Americans, many of whom did not have high school diplomas.

The EEOC also settled a lawsuit in 2003 against a residential care facility. A nursing assistant who had been working successfully at the facility was fired from her job when her employer adopted a high school diploma requirement. She was not able to obtain her GED because of her disability, and the employer refused to consider an alternative way to assess her ability to do her job. "What You Should Know: Questions and Answers about the EEOC and High School Diploma Requirements," (Feb. 2012).


The EEOC's November, 2011 discussion letter addressed individuals who are unable to obtain high school diplomas because learning disabilities prevent them from passing exams.

According to the Commission, "Under the ADA, a qualification standard, test, or other selection criterion, such as a high school diploma requirement, that screens out an individual or a class of individuals on the basis of a disability must be job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity." In other words, employers may not use the high school diploma requirement to screen out applicants with disabilities. If the applicant can perform the job's essential functions with or without a reasonable accommodation, despite the inability to meet the high school diploma standard, the employer should consider the applicant for the job.

For more information on complying with the ADA in your hiring practices, log on to read these articles:

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