Disability Discrimination Laws in the Workplace

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Federal law—and many state laws as well—prohibit disability discrimination in the workplace. They prevent most employers from making decisions or taking actions based on workers' or job applicants' physical or mental impairments.

A disability should not keep you from pursuing your chosen career, as long as an employer can make reasonable accommodations that will allow you to perform relevant job duties. You have the same rights to work as anyone else, regardless of whether you use a wheelchair or have an "invisible" disability such as mental illness.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act give individuals with disabilities the same rights as anyone else to pursue a career.

Laws That Protect Employees in the Workplace

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects any employee or job applicant with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

These activities include basic tasks like walking or communicating or even bending or kneeling. They include control or impairment of any major bodily function, including the immune, neurological, respiratory, or other systems.

The Rehabilitation Act protects anyone with a physical or mental impairment who works for or is applying for a job with the federal government, a federal government contractor or a subcontractor with over $10,000 in contracts or subcontracts.

The Rehabilitation Act also authorizes funding for the National Council on Disability and various independent living and rehabilitation programs. It includes programs and activities that receive federal funding.

Employers Subject to the ADA 

Private businesses, educational institutions, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor organizations must follow the provisions of the ADA law if they employ at least 15 workers.

The ADA also protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination by state and local governments in services and facilities provided to the public.

An individual does not actually have to be disabled for an employer to be subject to these laws. It's sufficient if the employer simply believes that a disability exists and subsequently takes one or more discriminatory actions, even if the worker doesn't actually suffer from the perceived disability.

How the Laws Protect Workers

An employer that is subject to the ADA cannot take an individual's disability into account when making decisions regarding hiring, firing, promotion, pay, or benefits. Additionally, employers must make "reasonable accommodations" that allow someone to perform his or her job or apply for a position.

Employers can be exempt from providing accommodations in cases when the employee does not make a request if the disability isn't immediately obvious. An employer does not necessarily have to make the exact accommodations that the employee requests. Employers might also be exempt if putting the accommodation in place would present an undue economic hardship or burden to the company.

An employer can't ask a job candidate health-related questions or require them to take a physical examination until that employer has offered the individual a job.

An employer can't create a hostile work environment by harassing a worker or applicant. This might include making offensive remarks or mocking the person about his or her disability.

An Additional Obligation for Employers

The Rehabilitation Act doesn't only prohibit employers from discriminating against employees and applicants when making hiring, promotion, compensation, and firing decisions. It also requires them to make an effort to employ and advance people with disabilities.

What to Do If You Suspect Discrimination

File a complaint against a federal agency under the Rehabilitation Act with its equal employment opportunity (EEO) office.

Make your claim with the EEO office of the federal agency that provides the funding when the complaint is against a federally-funded program or activity.

The U.S. Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) handles complaints against federal contractors and subcontractors.

You can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you encounter disability discrimination in a workplace that's not associated with the government, such as a private company.

State Disability Laws

Most states also have laws that prohibit disability discrimination in the workplace, and their provisions can be more stringent than the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. They cannot be less stringent, however.

Although your employer's or potential employer's actions might not be considered discrimination under federal law, your state law might nonetheless classify it as such, so make sure you investigate your state's employment discrimination laws.

Sources and Resources for More Information