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Disability Discrimination: Understanding the Law and Promoting Inclusivity

TLDR; Disability discrimination remains a significant issue, despite the protections provided by the ADA and other laws. By understanding the legal framework surrounding disability discrimination, individuals, businesses, and local governments can work together to promote inclusivity, provide equal opportunities, and ensure that people with disabilities are treated fairly and with respect.

October 3, 2023

Disability Discrimination: Understanding the Law and Promoting Inclusivity

Introduction

Disability discrimination occurs when people with disabilities are treated unfairly or denied equal opportunities due to their impairment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal laws provide protections against disability discrimination in various areas of public life, including employment, housing, and access to goods and services. This article will discuss the concept of disability discrimination, the protections afforded by the ADA and other laws, and practical steps that businesses, local governments, and individuals can take to combat discrimination and promote inclusivity.

Understanding Disability Discrimination and the ADA

The ADA is a federal civil rights law enacted in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas of public life. Key protections of the ADA include:

  • Employment (Title I): The ADA prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.
  • Public Services and Transportation (Title II): The ADA requires state and local governments and public transportation providers to ensure equal access to services and facilities for people with disabilities.
  • Public Accommodations (Title III): The ADA prohibits disability discrimination by businesses and other entities that provide goods and services to the public.

What Constitutes a Disability Under the ADA?

Per the ADA, the definition of disability is someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Has a record of such an impairment
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment

Major life activities include, but are not limited to, walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, and working.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 added the operation of major bodily functions to the definition of major life activities. Major bodily functions include, but are not limited to, immune system, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain and respiratory.

Read More: Detailed definition of a disability from the Job Accommodation Network

Employment Discrimination and the ADA

Title I of the ADA applies to private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management committees. It prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment decisions, including hiring, promotions, training, benefits, privileges of employment and termination.

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities (employees and job applicants), unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Modifying work schedules
  • Providing interpreters or assistive technology
  • Adjusting or modifying equipment
  • Making facilities accessible
  • Moving an interview to a more accessible location for a job applicant

Simply put, disability discrimination occurs when an employer or other entity covered by Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or other applicable federal laws, treats a qualified employee or applicant unfavorably because of disability. 

The Role of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA's employment provisions. Individuals who believe they have been discriminated against due to their disability can file a complaint with the EEOC. The agency may investigate the complaint, attempt to mediate a resolution between the parties, or take legal action on behalf of the individual.

Disability Discrimination in Housing

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on disability, among other protected classes. The FHA requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations, such as allowing a disabled person to have a service animal in a no-pets building, and to allow tenants to make reasonable modifications to their units at their own expense to improve accessibility, such as installing a ramp to enter the housing or installing lights that flash when the doorbell is rang.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Disability Discrimination

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is another federal law that prohibits disability discrimination, specifically by federal agencies, federal contractors, and recipients of federal financial assistance. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires these entities to provide equal access to programs, services, and activities for people with disabilities, while Section 508 mandates accessible electronic and information technology.

State and Local Laws Prohibiting Disability Discrimination

In addition to federal laws, many state laws and local governments have their own laws prohibiting disability discrimination. These laws may provide additional protections or cover smaller employers not subject to the ADA. It is essential for individuals and businesses to familiarize themselves with their state and local laws to ensure compliance and understand the full scope of their rights and obligations.

Promoting Inclusivity and Combating Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

Employers can take several proactive steps to create a more inclusive work environment and prevent disability discrimination in their employment practices:

  • Develop and implement strong anti-discrimination policies and communicate them clearly to all employees
  • Provide disability awareness training to staff to foster understanding and empathy
  • Engage in an interactive process with employees to identify and provide reasonable accommodations
  • Ensure that job postings, interviews, and hiring processes are accessible and inclusive

Examples of disability discrimination in the workplace

Some employees with a disability may find it hard to identify when they are being discriminated against. Workplace discrimination can take on many forms from derogatory comments to being overlooked for opportunities you are qualified or otherwise eligible for. A few examples of workplace disability discrimination include:

  • You are not hired, paid equally to coworkers or given advancement opportunities (projects, travel assignments, management rotations, etc.), based on your disability, that you are equally qualified for
  • Harassing an employee because of their disability, which can include intrusive comments or questions about a disability, making assumptions about your abilities and verbally such as jokes, slurs or teasing due to a disability
  • Refusing to offer reasonable accommodations. Most employers (15 or more by federal ADA and less by most state laws) are legally required to provide reasonable adjustments and modifications at work. Your employer must engage in an “interactive conversation” to examine accommodation options.

Read More: What is the Interactive Process Under the ADA?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Disability Discrimination

Q: Can an employer require a medical examination before offering a job?

A: Under the ADA, employers may not require a medical examination before making a job offer. However, they can make a job offer contingent on the results of a medical examination if the examination is required for all employees entering the same job category and the results are kept confidential.

Q: What are some examples of mental health disabilities covered by the ADA?

A: Mental health disabilities covered by the ADA can include, but are not limited to, depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and learning disabilities.

Q: Are there any exceptions to the ADA's prohibition on disability discrimination?

A: There are some exceptions and limitations to the ADA's protections. For example, employers may be exempt from providing reasonable accommodations if doing so would cause undue hardship, and religious organizations may be exempt from certain provisions of the ADA.

Q: What resources are available if an employee needs a reasonable accommodation and their employer doesn’t have a documented process to follow?

A: Disclo, the author of this article, has prepared many resource for employees and employer. Even if an employer hasn’t created an internal process, they are still obligated to follow the law. An employee can use Disclo’s Interactive Accommodation Request Form to document the request for an accommodation.

Seeking Legal Advice and Technical Assistance for Disability Discrimination Issues

Individuals who believe they have experienced disability discrimination may wish to consult with an attorney who specializes in civil rights or disability law to understand their rights and potential remedies. Additionally, businesses and local governments can seek technical assistance from the DOJ, the EEOC, or other federal agencies to ensure compliance with disability discrimination laws.

Conclusion

Disability discrimination remains a significant issue, despite the protections provided by the ADA and other laws. By understanding the legal framework surrounding disability discrimination, individuals, businesses, and local governments can work together to promote inclusivity, provide equal opportunities, and ensure that people with disabilities are treated fairly and with respect. With increased awareness and proactive measures to prevent discrimination, we can move toward a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

Introduction

Disability discrimination occurs when people with disabilities are treated unfairly or denied equal opportunities due to their impairment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal laws provide protections against disability discrimination in various areas of public life, including employment, housing, and access to goods and services. This article will discuss the concept of disability discrimination, the protections afforded by the ADA and other laws, and practical steps that businesses, local governments, and individuals can take to combat discrimination and promote inclusivity.

Understanding Disability Discrimination and the ADA

The ADA is a federal civil rights law enacted in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas of public life. Key protections of the ADA include:

  • Employment (Title I): The ADA prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.
  • Public Services and Transportation (Title II): The ADA requires state and local governments and public transportation providers to ensure equal access to services and facilities for people with disabilities.
  • Public Accommodations (Title III): The ADA prohibits disability discrimination by businesses and other entities that provide goods and services to the public.

What Constitutes a Disability Under the ADA?

Per the ADA, the definition of disability is someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Has a record of such an impairment
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment

Major life activities include, but are not limited to, walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, and working.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 added the operation of major bodily functions to the definition of major life activities. Major bodily functions include, but are not limited to, immune system, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain and respiratory.

Read More: Detailed definition of a disability from the Job Accommodation Network

Employment Discrimination and the ADA

Title I of the ADA applies to private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management committees. It prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment decisions, including hiring, promotions, training, benefits, privileges of employment and termination.

Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities (employees and job applicants), unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Modifying work schedules
  • Providing interpreters or assistive technology
  • Adjusting or modifying equipment
  • Making facilities accessible
  • Moving an interview to a more accessible location for a job applicant

Simply put, disability discrimination occurs when an employer or other entity covered by Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or other applicable federal laws, treats a qualified employee or applicant unfavorably because of disability. 

The Role of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA's employment provisions. Individuals who believe they have been discriminated against due to their disability can file a complaint with the EEOC. The agency may investigate the complaint, attempt to mediate a resolution between the parties, or take legal action on behalf of the individual.

Disability Discrimination in Housing

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on disability, among other protected classes. The FHA requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations, such as allowing a disabled person to have a service animal in a no-pets building, and to allow tenants to make reasonable modifications to their units at their own expense to improve accessibility, such as installing a ramp to enter the housing or installing lights that flash when the doorbell is rang.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Disability Discrimination

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is another federal law that prohibits disability discrimination, specifically by federal agencies, federal contractors, and recipients of federal financial assistance. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires these entities to provide equal access to programs, services, and activities for people with disabilities, while Section 508 mandates accessible electronic and information technology.

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State and Local Laws Prohibiting Disability Discrimination

In addition to federal laws, many state laws and local governments have their own laws prohibiting disability discrimination. These laws may provide additional protections or cover smaller employers not subject to the ADA. It is essential for individuals and businesses to familiarize themselves with their state and local laws to ensure compliance and understand the full scope of their rights and obligations.

Promoting Inclusivity and Combating Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

Employers can take several proactive steps to create a more inclusive work environment and prevent disability discrimination in their employment practices:

  • Develop and implement strong anti-discrimination policies and communicate them clearly to all employees
  • Provide disability awareness training to staff to foster understanding and empathy
  • Engage in an interactive process with employees to identify and provide reasonable accommodations
  • Ensure that job postings, interviews, and hiring processes are accessible and inclusive

Examples of disability discrimination in the workplace

Some employees with a disability may find it hard to identify when they are being discriminated against. Workplace discrimination can take on many forms from derogatory comments to being overlooked for opportunities you are qualified or otherwise eligible for. A few examples of workplace disability discrimination include:

  • You are not hired, paid equally to coworkers or given advancement opportunities (projects, travel assignments, management rotations, etc.), based on your disability, that you are equally qualified for
  • Harassing an employee because of their disability, which can include intrusive comments or questions about a disability, making assumptions about your abilities and verbally such as jokes, slurs or teasing due to a disability
  • Refusing to offer reasonable accommodations. Most employers (15 or more by federal ADA and less by most state laws) are legally required to provide reasonable adjustments and modifications at work. Your employer must engage in an “interactive conversation” to examine accommodation options.

Read More: What is the Interactive Process Under the ADA?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Disability Discrimination

Q: Can an employer require a medical examination before offering a job?

A: Under the ADA, employers may not require a medical examination before making a job offer. However, they can make a job offer contingent on the results of a medical examination if the examination is required for all employees entering the same job category and the results are kept confidential.

Q: What are some examples of mental health disabilities covered by the ADA?

A: Mental health disabilities covered by the ADA can include, but are not limited to, depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and learning disabilities.

Q: Are there any exceptions to the ADA's prohibition on disability discrimination?

A: There are some exceptions and limitations to the ADA's protections. For example, employers may be exempt from providing reasonable accommodations if doing so would cause undue hardship, and religious organizations may be exempt from certain provisions of the ADA.

Q: What resources are available if an employee needs a reasonable accommodation and their employer doesn’t have a documented process to follow?

A: Disclo, the author of this article, has prepared many resource for employees and employer. Even if an employer hasn’t created an internal process, they are still obligated to follow the law. An employee can use Disclo’s Interactive Accommodation Request Form to document the request for an accommodation.

Seeking Legal Advice and Technical Assistance for Disability Discrimination Issues

Individuals who believe they have experienced disability discrimination may wish to consult with an attorney who specializes in civil rights or disability law to understand their rights and potential remedies. Additionally, businesses and local governments can seek technical assistance from the DOJ, the EEOC, or other federal agencies to ensure compliance with disability discrimination laws.

Conclusion

Disability discrimination remains a significant issue, despite the protections provided by the ADA and other laws. By understanding the legal framework surrounding disability discrimination, individuals, businesses, and local governments can work together to promote inclusivity, provide equal opportunities, and ensure that people with disabilities are treated fairly and with respect. With increased awareness and proactive measures to prevent discrimination, we can move toward a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

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