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Disabled Discrimination in the Workplace


images (2)Employees and job applicants with disabilities are legally entitled to the same rights and consideration that workers without disabilities enjoy. Under federal law, an employer cannot consider a person’s disability when making hiring decisions and cannot treat him differently in the workplace because of it. If the employer does, the employee can take legal action.

Legal Definition of Disabled

The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, protects job applicants and employees from workplace discrimination based on disability. The law defines a disability as a permanent or chronic injury or medical condition, such as blindness, hearing impairment or mobility issues such as those requiring the use of a wheelchair. Temporary ailments, such as a broken bone or a short-term illness, aren’t covered by these federal anti-discrimination laws. However, a history of illness, such as cancer now in remission, is covered. The law applies not only to obvious disabilities such as physical impairment, but also to less noticeable conditions such as emotional or mental disabilities, including learning disabilities.

Examples of Disability Discrimination

Anti-discrimination laws apply to every aspect of employment, from hiring to firing. Employers cannot refuse to provide accommodations for applicants with disabilities, such as if a candidate is deaf and needs a sign language interpreter to attend the job interview. The only exception is if doing so would place an undue burden on the company. On the job, employers cannot treat disabled employees differently than those without disabilities. For example, an employer cannot limit the kinds of opportunities and assignments offered to an employee with a disability if the person is qualified to perform those tasks. If an employer refused to allow an employee who uses a wheelchair to attend client meetings or work directly with customers, this would likely be considered discrimination. Publicly discussing an employee’s disability or making jokes about it also qualifies as discrimination.


If employers discriminate based on disability, they not only deny applicants job opportunities, they also hurt the company by eliminating candidates who might be valuable additions to the team. Treating disabled employees differently in the workplace can alienate them from coworkers and cause discord. If an applicant or employee reports discrimination, or if there appears to be a pattern of discrimination at the company, it can damage the company’s reputation, making it difficult to attract employees, customers and even investors. In addition, if an employee can prove discrimination, she can file a lawsuit or a claim with the government, potentially costing the company tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees or fines.

Reporting Discrimination

If employees or job applicants feel they’ve been discriminated against because of a disability, they can report the behavior to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees the Americans With Disabilities Act. If the commission investigates and finds the claim is warranted, it may impose fines on the employer. A worker can also file a civil lawsuit against the employer, possibly resulting in a significant monetary settlement. To win their claim, workers must prove that they were treated differently than other employees, and that their disability was the sole reason for being denied a job, demoted, fired or subjected to other unfavorable action.

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