updated 1/6/2010 1:42:55 PM ET 2010-01-06T18:42:55

The number of workers claiming job discrimination based on disability, religion or national origin surged to new highs last year, as federal job bias complaints overall stayed at near-record levels.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Wednesday that charges of disability discrimination rose by about 10 percent to 21,451 claims, the largest increase of any category.

The increase coincided with changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act last year that made it easier for people with epilepsy, diabetes and other treatable conditions to claim they are disabled.

Overall, the EEOC received more than 93,000 discrimination claims during the 2009 fiscal year, a 2 percent decrease from the record set in 2008, but still the second-highest level in the commission's history.

As in previous years, claims based on race, sex and retaliation were the most frequent.

The commission's acting chairman, Stuart Ishimaru, said equal employment opportunity "remains elusive for far too many workers." He urged employers to step up efforts to end discrimination at work.

Since the ADA was enacted in 1990, a series of Supreme Court rulings have generally exempted from its protections those with partial physical disabilities or impairments that can be treated with medication or devices such as hearing aids.

Legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush before he left office directs courts to apply the definition of disability more generously.

"After this law passed, I think people were more encouraged that if they had a disability that they were able to manage and still experienced discrimination on the job, that they might actually get some relief," said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Charges of discrimination based on national origin rose by about 5 percent to 11,134 claims, while religious discrimination claims rose less than 1 percent, to 3,386 claims.

EEOC spokesman David Grinberg said the rise in those categories may be attributed to a more diverse workplace with a growing number of immigrants. He said national origin complaints are filed most often by Hispanics and Asians.

Allegations of race discrimination remained the most frequently filed complaint, accounting for about 36 percent of all filings last year.

The EEOC said the near-historic level of complaints overall may be due to a number of factors, including economic conditions, increased diversity and demographic shifts in the work force. Employees also may be more aware of their rights and could be taking advantage of changes at the EEOC to make it easier to file a discrimination charge.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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