5 Examples of Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

What is disability discrimination?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics published that 19.1% of Americans with disabilities held jobs in 2021. It represents a 1.2% growth in disabled employment over 2020—a massive victory for diversity and inclusion initiatives.

However, it also represents the amount of growth that’s still possible, and disability discrimination in the workplace is still a massive hurdle in the lives of millions of employees with disabilities. 

Over the past 80 years, various federal and state laws have introduced protections for individuals with disabilities. Laws that protect against disability discrimination found particular strength in 2008 when the Americans with Disabilities Act received a much-needed revision. 

To take the next step, employers and employees need to come together to snuff out workplace discrimination through vigorous bias education, active involvement in diversity, and inclusive hiring practices that provide meaningful purpose to millions and benefit bottom lines. In this article, we will review the laws surrounding disability discrimination and the various forms it takes in your workplace.

Laws and Regulations Against Disability Discrimination

People with disabilities have undue hardships, and those capable of working find purpose in contributing to an organization. Several federal, state and local disability discrimination laws protect people with disabilities. Breaking one of these laws is the fastest way to see an employment lawyer! 

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, and Congress updated it in 2008. It covers businesses with at least 15 people and makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability. That includes the hiring process, corrective action, promotions, compensation, training, or other employment aspects. In addition to covering an individual with a disability, the ADA covers disability discrimination by association. 

Under the ADA, the government defines a person with a disability as someone who can show medical documentation of a mental or physical impairment and they have medical evidence to support the impairment. These individuals don’t have to be disabled, but the government protects anyone with an impairment. 

The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 makes it illegal to discriminate against employees with disabilities in federal agencies. Although this law was initially for public sector employees, it laid the Civil Rights groundwork for private employers. Under the Rehabilitation Act, contractors or other governmental employment agencies receive legal protection equal to the standard of the ADA. 

The Fair Employment and Housing Act

Another landmark Civil Rights amendment is the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act has its roots back in FDR’s presidency in 1941, while the Fair Employment Act was a later addition in 1968. Regardless, they both provide legal protection for people with disabilities, most notably in the workplace, where it’s illegal to discriminate against someone with a protected status, such as a disability. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act, better known as FMLA, protects eligible employees from disability discrimination due to family medical conditions. Under FMLA, an employee may take up to 12 unpaid weeks of job-protected leave to care for family medical conditions or disabilities. FMLA defines pregnancy as a protected medical condition that prevents disability discrimination against expectant mothers. 

5 Examples of Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

Now that you know about some federal laws to protect people with disabilities, it’s time to examine some examples of disability discrimination in the workplace. As always, employment discrimination creates a toxic work environment, and seeking legal advice is acceptable, especially when it hinders aspects of employment deemed vital to success! 

1. Direct Discrimination

Direct discrimination can be intentional or unconscious but always involves employment decisions or actions against employees with disabilities. Often, direct disability discrimination takes the form of not hiring a person with a disability, denying privileges of employment like promotion opportunities, or unfavorable working conditions. You can reduce direct discrimination by implementing diverse hiring practices and inclusive policies.  

Unfortunately, direct discrimination affects more than individuals with a disability. It can also become disability discrimination by association—being discriminated against based on a family member’s disability. Disability discrimination can prevent a parent who cares for a child with a disability from accessing equal employment opportunities. 

2. Indirect Discrimination

Workplace discrimination doesn’t have to be direct or to harass; it can be institutional. Indirect discrimination applies to workplace policies or practices that apply to all employees but unfairly impact people with disabilities. For example, an employer requires breaks taken in the breakroom, but doing so would cause significant difficulty for someone with a physical disability.

Those who struggle with major life activities like movement would find this policy unreasonable. Policies targeting individuals based on a physical or mental disability create a non-inclusive environment and ultimately hurt your workplace morale. 

3. Workplace Harassment and Retaliation

Disability discrimination takes its most extreme form in workplace harassment and retaliation. Workplace harassment includes subjecting a person with a disability to derogatory conduct regarding their disability, like physical actions, verbal insults, jokes, or written material directed toward an employee with a disability. Unfortunately, this is the grown-up version of bullying, including taunting, name-calling, and open insults. 

Worse still is when someone attempts to speak up for those with a medical condition, and someone takes action against that person because they reported an incident. Retaliation can include cutting back hours, unfavorable conditions, or other harassment.  

4. Failure to Make Reasonable Accommodations

The most significant form of disability discrimination comes from reasonable accommodations. Failure to accommodate employees with disabilities stands as the largest contributor to workplace discrimination cases. Reasonable accommodations are part of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) rules for workplace discrimination. 

Reasonable accommodations include modifying work schedules, assistive software, access to interpreters, or any other accommodation that assists an employee in completing required job duties. While it makes up a considerable portion of disability discrimination cases, employers may be exempt if the accommodation results in undue hardship for the organization. However, this policy is case-by-case and up to legal intervention to determine the reasonability. 

5. Any Actions Based on a Person’s Disability

Furthermore, any action taken against a person based on their disability qualifies as disability discrimination. These actions include rescinding a job offer after learning of a disability, requesting a medical examination, or inquiring about the status of other major bodily functions. Not only are these actions embarrassing for an individual with a disability, but they are also illegal!

Combat Disability Discrimination with Coach Diversity

Job applicants, employees, and their families all have a right to an inclusive working environment. Disability discrimination is just one of the many forms of discrimination that deteriorate employee relationships. It takes the form of direct, indirect, and hostile actions against employees with disabilities. Reducing discrimination, however, is an interactive process. One that involves active participation and recognition of personal and unconscious bias. 

When you recognize you can be a more significant part of the solution, you can take the next step by enrolling in cultural competency training with Coach Diversity Institute. Coach Diversity Institute has the tools, training, and guidance you need to make a lasting impact in your workplace and eliminate disability discrimination. Get started today and make a difference in the lives around you!