How Employers Can Fight Employee Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

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Concept of Employee Disability Discrimination According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2019, there are 61 million American adults living with disabilities. That equals over a quarter of the U.S. adult population. Employee disability discrimination affects a large portion of the qualified workforce. In 2020, individuals with a disability were much less likely to be employed than their counterparts with no disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This applies across all levels of education.

But employees can fight disability discrimination at their business. Creating a respectful workplace for all employees requires a combination of employer leadership and legal knowledge of rights and responsibilities.

What Is Disability Discrimination?

Disability discrimination occurs when one employee is treated less favorably in the workplace because of his or her disability. Discrimination can come in the form of harassment but is not always blatant. Employee disability discrimination can include hiring biases, refusal to reasonably accommodate a person’s disability, inappropriate interview questions, and more.

Defining Disability

The legal and medical definitions of disability are similar but may have slight variances. For legal purposes, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Major life activities include basic activities that most people can perform with little difficulty such as walking, standing, seeing, hearing, and use of limbs. Activities also include cognitive, behavioral, and social activities.

Employment Laws Against Disability Discrimination

There are five primary federal laws that have been created specifically to protect the rights of individuals living with disabilities from employment disability discrimination. It’s important that both employers and employees have a basic understanding of their rights and responsibilities as they pertain to these acts.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA is probably the most well-known anti-discrimination law. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and promotes equal opportunities in all areas of public life including employment, transportation, public accommodations, government services, and more. ADA compliance is federally mandated for virtually all employers and enforced by four different government agencies:

  • The Department of Labor (DOL)
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • The Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act funds programs for disability-related activities and vocational rehabilitation programs. Its primary purpose is to help disabled individuals learn to live as independently as possible. The act also includes laws prohibiting discrimination by federal agencies, employers with federal contracts, and programs that receive federal financial assistance.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)

WIOA focuses on finding jobs for disabled individuals and others seeking employment based on their skills and interest. This includes resume assistance, education and career assessments, workshops, counseling and career planning strategies, job search assistance, and job training for certain jobs.

Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA)

Despite its name, VEVRAA does not apply solely to Vietnam veterans. The original version of the Act focused on providing assistance to returning Vietnam veterans facing employment discrimination. VEVRRA now prohibits employer discrimination against protected veterans— including those with disabilities— during the hiring process and ongoing employment.

Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA)

The CSRA defines a number of prohibited personnel practices (PPP) for federal employers. These are employment-related activities that are banned because they promote employment discrimination based on a number of factors, including disability.

How Employers Can Fight Employee Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

The first step towards prevention is understanding the requirements set forth in the laws that were established to protect against employee disability discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act is the most applicable law for the majority of U.S. employers. The ADA covers a lot of different areas of discrimination. These are a few areas that employers should be aware of.

Accessibility Accommodations

Employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities to be able to perform their jobs. This could include wheelchair-accessible entrances, bathroom accommodations, chairs, desks, and office equipment.

Questions About Disabilities

During a job interview, a potential employer cannot ask an applicant if they are disabled or about the severity of the disability. Interview questions can pertain to the applicant’s ability to perform job-related functions as long as the questions do not pertain to disability. An employer may ask for a demonstration of how the applicant will perform the required duties, with or without accommodations.

Posting Notices

The ADA requires that employers post a notice describing employee rights under the ADA. Posters are available through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and can be downloaded for free in multiple languages. The EEOC will also provide guidance on making the poster accessible to employees with disabilities.

Changing the Culture of Employee Disability Discrimination

By building a culture of respect and acceptance, employers can protect their legal rights and those of their employees. Employee disability discrimination does not always start with the employer. An employer’s failure to recognize or respond to discrimination from other employees or contractors is also discrimination.

Employment Policy

Develop a written policy that defines rules and procedures for employee disability discrimination. Include this information in the employee handbook. Require employees to read and sign the section upon hire. This sets a precedent for how your company handles disability discrimination. This should cover a broad range of discriminatory acts.

Active Prevention

Some state laws require anti-discrimination training for certain types of businesses. This doesn’t have to be a requirement in order for it to make sense for your company. Managers and employees who understand what constitutes disability discrimination are less likely to make mistakes and more likely to watch for signs of discrimination

Resolution Procedures

It is important to take care of discrimination issues quickly and carefully. Resolution procedures need to be consistent, and applied uniformly. Establishing a clear chain of command and informing all employees of reporting and resolution procedures can help promote the expectation that everyone is treated fairly and equally in your workplace.

How an Employment Legal Matters Lawyer Can Help

Smithey Law Group LLC represents employers throughout Maryland with a focus on discrimination-based claims, compliance, and claim prevention. Aside from appropriately responding to disability discrimination claims, Smithy Law Group can assist in training employees on the signs and legalities of discrimination and mandatory EEOC disclosures.

Ms. Smithey and her team have experience on both sides of employee disability discrimination claims. Schedule a confidential consultation with our Annapolis employment discrimination legal issues attorneys by calling (410) 881-8994 or contact us online.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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