Disability Rights in the Workplace

Whether you are a person with disabilities, or an employer with a handful of employees, it’s always good to know about disability rights in the workplace. For people with disabilities, understanding the rights of American workers is instrumental in ensuring that those rights are enforced. It can also help them self-advocate or, in the worst-case scenario, use government resources to recoup economic or career-based losses.

On the other hand, employers need to know about disability rights in the workplace to ensure that they are compliant with the law. Not only does failure to comply introduce the possibility of bad press, but it can be expensive if the federal government sues. Avoiding liability involves understanding several different types of discrimination and how to avoid them. We’ve prepared this guide to help workers and employers alike understand the basics as they apply to the United States.

ADA - Americans with Disabilities Act acronym on notepad, concept background
Disability Rights in the Workplace 3

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

For most employers, and their workers or job applicants, the controlling Federal legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act. Congress passed this law in the Nineties to help ensure that people with disabilities that want to work have a fair chance in the job market and workplace. In a nutshell, the ADA requires that employers:

  • Make the job application process accessible for everyone.
  • Not fail to hire someone just because they have a disability. In other words, disability cannot be a reason to not hire a qualified candidate.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations to workers so that they can perform their job duties.
  • Not take any adverse action against an employee because they have a disability, or because they complain about the lack of disability accommodations. Adverse action can include termination of employment, denial of opportunities for advancement/transfer, or less desirable work conditions.
  • Provide equal opportunities for advancement or transfer to another position within the company.

In other words, employees with disabilities must be treated just as well as any other employee, and every job applicant must have the same opportunity to get the job as any other similarly qualified candidate.

Defining “Disability”

According to the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, or that interferes with major bodily functions. To qualify for ADA protection, the impairment must also be expected to last for at least six months.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition of disability. Substantial impairment means that the difficulty must be more than minor-in other words, enough to cause some difficulties in functioning. Major life activities can include reading, hearing, speaking, writing, and other important tasks of everyday life. Bodily functions can include breathing, eating, standing, sitting, walking, or even toileting. With that in mind, the ADA applies for four basic groups: Job applicants, employees with disabilities, people in those categories with a history of disability, and people who are associated with someone that has a disability. So, ADA protections don’t only apply to current employees, nor does it only apply to workers who currently have a disability. Having a history of disability can mean, for example, that you have recovered from cancer or got surgery to repair a heart problem. Being regarded as having a disability means that the employer suspects you have a disability. Finally, association with someone who has a disability means that a family member or friend has one.

Who is a Qualified Worker with a Disability?

Under Americans with Disabilities Act rules, a qualified worker with a disability is someone who can adequately perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation. In other words, to qualify for ADA protection, a worker must be basically qualified to do the job, in that they have the skills or expertise, or are able to acquire and apply them with training. Here are some (relatively) common examples:

  • A schoolteacher who has the required certifications for their job, and who can in fact teach, but uses a wheelchair.
  • An attorney properly admitted to the Bar in their state, who has a visual impairment beyond standard eyeglasses.
  • An administrative assistant that has trouble with lifting heavy objects.

While it might seem easy for an employer to say even small tasks are a critical part of a job, this isn’t necessarily true. Rulemaking and legal precedent over the years mean that some tasks that a professional does at work might not be considered essential to their job description. For instance, in a lot of offices employees will need to pick up heavy boxes occasionally. If someone has a bad back, they might not be able to handle the weight. If this professional can perform the main tasks of their job without picking up boxes, then heavy lifting isn’t essential to the job.

If I have a disability, what are my rights at work?

As a worker with a disability, it’s important that you know your rights. These rights are also outlined in the ADA. Generally speaking, they require your employer to treat you with respect and make it possible to stay on the job as much as possible.

Reasonable Accommodation

An accommodation is a modification of your working conditions that makes it easier to compensate for your disability-related impairments. In other words, it “levels the playing field” between people who don’t have impairments and those who do and allows the worker to perform their job. Common examples include providing a special desk for someone who uses a wheelchair, letting someone who struggles using a keyboard dictate emails with a speech recognition device, “accessible” ramps, and a more flexible work schedule.

Medical Examinations and Questions About Disabilities

Many employers require pre-employment medical examinations. Unfortunately, while these exams can determine if someone can do the job, they can also be misused for discriminatory reasons. For that reason, the ADA banned medical examinations before a job offer is made. The exam must also be reasonable to ensure that you can perform the job safely, or that you meet regulatory requirements for physical capabilities. Likewise, employers can’t ask about medical conditions during job interviews or employment as a way to “weed out” people that might need accommodations.

Undue Hardship

Your employer doesn’t have to give you every accommodation you ask for if it’s excessively expensive for their budget or disturbs operations. This part of the law is more ambiguous because the size and type of business, along with operational concerns, factor into the definition of “undue hardship.” For that reason, the larger your employer, and the more flexible their operations, the more likely that they have to grant the accommodation.


Finally, your employer must keep your medical and disability information confidential. This means that, unless they need to disclose this information for regulatory or other legally permissible reasons, they must keep the information private. Employers must keep a separate file with your disability information in it and not tell people that you have a disability or are receiving accommodations. Likewise, they can’t talk about your disability in inappropriate situations, like an employee meeting.

With that said, there are situations where your employer might need to disclose information. For instance, if they know you have a heart condition, and you suddenly become unconscious at work, your supervisor could tell the ambulance about your heart problem. Likewise, they can tell your supervisor the minimum information needed to accommodate your disability and keep you safe. Combined with some legally-required disclosure situations, your private information is strictly need to know.

What to Do if You Have Been Discriminated Against

If you believe that you have been discriminated against, there are a couple of different options to enforce your rights. Depending on your state, it might be possible to file a complaint and receive help, usually through their Department of Labor or Civil Rights office. Or, you can file an ADA complaint with the Department of Justice or the EEOC (Department of Labor).

These agencies will investigate your complaint and take whatever action they deem necessary to try and resolve your case. For instance, they might get the employer to pay compensation. As a last resort, they may file a lawsuit or allow you to do so.

Additional ADA Assistance

If you have any questions about your disability rights in the workplace, you can read the resources included at the end of this article or any of the links. In addition, you can reach out to your state’s Department of Labor, the ADA section at the Department of Justice, or the EEOC. In most cases, they’ll be able to answer basic questions or help you decide if you have a complaint.

For practical help, you can often reach out to your State’s vocational rehabilitation office, an agency dedicated to people with vision or hearing impairments, or a nonprofit dedicated to your disability. Finally, an employment attorney may be able to advise you of legal rights and, if necessary, help you resolve a dispute you may have with an employer.



Department of Justice



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