By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/27/2011 4:28:59 PM ET 2011-07-27T20:28:59

Early in his career as a boxer, Michael Costantino entered one of New York City’s most prestigious amateur boxing events even though he was born without a left hand. He surprised the crowd with his right hooks, a Queens newspaper reported in 2002.

But recently, Costantino got his own surprise when he was looking for a new career and applied for a job at the Transportation Security Administration. The agency told him he didn’t qualify for the position because of his disability.

“I was upset,” he said. “I’m highly capable of doing it.”

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Costantino, 32, wanted to be a transportation security officer, or TSO, and part of his job would have been to pat down passengers and check luggage. But no one ever tested him for those tasks, he said.

After a physical examination by the agency, he got a notice stating he did not qualify for the position because of the “congenital loss of right hand,” according to his lawyer Jonathan Bell.

“Because of his disability they made an assumption that he couldn’t perform the patting down of people, or looking in bags,” Bell said. “Meanwhile he trains with heavyweight fighters. He’s the first line of defense you want against terrorism.”

Bell has filed a complaint with the TSA on Costantino’s behalf, and he’s also hoping the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will help remedy the matter.

The TSA declined to comment specifically on the case, citing pending litigation.

But an official, who demanded anonymity, said the congressional act that created the TSA in 2001 "gave the agency the leeway to create its own physical qualifications for the Transportation Security Officer position, and potential employees have to meet certain physical standards to meet those qualifications."

The law requires that screeners "possess basic aptitudes and physical abilities, including color perception, visual and aural acuity, physical coordination, and motor skills."

But clearly, the federal government is not exempt from laws that protect disabled workers, and Costantino is not the first to allege disability bias. About 5,500 complaints were filed by federal employees last year with the EEOC regarding alleged discrimination based on disabilities, both physical and mental.

An EEOC official would not comment on the TSA case.

Just like private sector employees, federal workers and those applying for federal jobs have rights protecting them from discrimination. Federal workers are covered by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 rather than the Americans with Disabilities Act that covers private employers. But the protections are largely the same, said Chris Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel and director of the ADA/GINA Policy Division of the EEOC.

“The federal government should be a model employer,” said attorney Bell. “You have to treat each person as a whole.”

When he first got his rejections Costantino had no intention of pursuing legal action. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do? It’s the government.’” But he’s decided to fight for his job. “I can do it. They made a huge mistake.”

Sounds like he may have some good right hooks left in him.

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