Because of the undeserved stigma attached to disabled workers, individuals with disabilities often face incredible odds when searching for employment. This is a sad truth, but one that can be overcome if you know your rights.

This guide was created to introduce disabled workers and job-seekers to the rights afforded to them by federal and state governments. In addition, we offer useful tips for finding a job, advice on staying gainfully employed, and guidance that can help you talk with an existing employer about making a reasonable accommodation for you.

Having any kind of disability does not preclude you from earning a living and supporting your family, nor should it. However, you may need to try harder than others to find employment that will adequately use your skill set without testing your disability or causing you undue harm.

Keep reading to learn more about your rights and responsibilities as a disabled worker, and best practices for moving forward.

What the ADA and Other Laws Mean to Workers

When anyone mentions the “ADA” in the context of disabled worker’s rights, they are speaking of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits the discrimination of persons with disabilities seeking employment while ensuring they have equal opportunity.

The ADA was created based on the basic principle that “physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society,” with the goal of providing a “clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is long and cumbersome to read in its entirety, its main components can be summarized as follows:

Americans with Disabilities Act at a Glance

  • The ADA prohibits discrimination of workers with disabilities.

  • The ADA ensures equal opportunities for persons and workers with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

  • The ADA mandates the establishment of TDD/telephone relay services.

  • The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including State and local governments, employment agencies, and labor organizations.

  • An employer who must follow ADA rules is generally required to make a reasonable accommodation for a qualified applicant as long as it does not pose an “undue hardship” on their business or its ability to operate.

  • An employer may not be required to make a reasonable accommodation if it would require significant difficulty or expense, or it if requires them to lower quality or production standards.

  • The ADA makes it unlawful to retaliate against an individual who opposes discrimination against workers with a disability.

  • Based on details found in Title I of the ADA, employers cannot inquire about the existence, nature, or severity of an employee’s disability, but they can ask about their ability to perform the job in question. Employers cannot ask for a medical examination unless the same examination is required for all employees, disabled or not.

  • Employers are required to keep medical records confidential. This rue stands where a medical record notes information on the employee’s disability or health conditions or not.

What is Reasonable Accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation is an upgrade or exception an employer makes in order to help a worker with a disability feel more comfortable or perform better on the job. This can include making existing facilities accessible and usable by persons with disabilities, modifying work schedules to accommodate special requests, or acquiring and modifying equipment, materials, and policies to aid the employment of a worker with a disability.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was created to serve as an upgrade to the outdated Workforce Investment Act, which has been due for reauthorization since 2003.

According to information on the implementation of the WIOA from the United States Senate, the United States will fall 11 million short of the number of workers with postsecondary education needed in the workplace within the decade. Further, 52 percent of adults aged 16-65 lack the literacy skills needed to perform basic job requirements.

As the U.S. Senate also notes, individuals with disabilities have the highest rate of unemployment of any group, with more than two-thirds not participating in the workforce at all. The WIOA hopes to change that by:

Eliminating 15 existing programs for workers and combining their offerings into a single, streamlined program

Supporting access to workforce development through customized training, pay for performance, and sector and pathway strategies

Boosting and improving existing workforce development programs and aligning them with education initiatives

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities receive the training necessary to thrive in the workplace

Empowering local boards and governments to tailor services and set standards based on their regional employment training needs

By the time the WIOA is fully implemented in July of 2016, government sources hope to see a speedier and more efficient system that will improve education and outreach to individuals with disabilities while connecting them with applicable on-the-job and work training.

By implementing this strategy, drafters of the WIOA hope to see a new system that prepares workers for the realities of the 21st century economy, while helping businesses find the skilled employees they need to remain fully operational.

How to Discuss Reasonable Accommodation With Your Employer

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, an individual with a disability is a person who:

Has a physical or mental impairment that may limit their activities

Has a record or history of such impairment

Is regarded as having such an impairment

While these descriptions remain rather broad, they are intended to be since disabilities come in many forms and shouldn’t be minimized. The level of a person’s disability may impact their ability to perform basic job functions, although it shouldn’t hamper an individual’s ability to escape discrimination based on their disabled status.

Tips for Requesting Reasonable Accommodation

The fact that the ADA prohibits employers from questioning you about your disability means you may need to initiate any conversations about reasonable accommodation. In other words, if you feel adjustments to your workplace are needed or required, you will need to ask.

While you may not want to put your employer on the spot, it is within your rights to request reasonable accommodation that will help you perform your job. Since the accommodation you ultimately receive could improve your output and performance at work, asking for – and receiving – help or modifications could be a win-win for everyone. As you broach the subject with your employer, consider these five tips:

  • Your Employer Can’t Read Minds

    Your employer or HR representative may not be aware of your needs. While your individual needs and concerns are very obvious to you, they may not be obvious enough to draw attention from your employer or HR representative. When you describe your situation to them, be clear on what your needs really are – and how they can help.

  • Ask for Exactly What You Want

    Ask for exactly what you want, and consider putting it in writing. Once you have explained your situation, ask for exactly what you need in terms of accommodation. “Beating around the bush” or being vague about your needs may result in an outcome or reasonable accommodation that is not truly helpful. On the other hand, telling your employer exactly what you need is the best way to get what you want.

  • Be Patient With Your Explanation

    Explain how reasonable accommodation will help you do your job. If your employer doesn’t understand the accommodation you’re requesting at first, take the extra step to explain how the modification or adjustment will help you do your job.

  • Be Open to Alternatives

    Be willing to consider alternatives. If your employer or HR representative suggests an alternative accommodation, give it a chance before you suggest more alternatives or reissue your original request. You may find that their suggestions are more than adequate to help you do your job.

  • Be Patient But Insistent

    When you make the initial request with your employer, it can pay off to give them some time to implement reasonable accommodation. At the same time, you should never let them “put you off” or downplay your needs. Be patient, but also be insistent about what it will take for you to perform your job the best you can. The law is on your side.

Examples of Reasonable Accommodation

If your disability is preventing you from performing your job duties, you may be wondering what type of reasonable accommodation to expect. Here are a few common scenarios to consider:

Hearing Impairment

A hearing impairment is a hearing loss that prevents an individual from receiving sounds — either completely or partially — through their ear. A mild loss can result in the individual having difficulty hearing faint speech or noises in another room, while a severe hearing loss can result in a person not being able to distinguish any sounds. Types of hearing loss include: conductive, sensorineural, mixed, and central.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

An individual with partial hearing loss may be accommodated with special seating arrangements so they can hear within a group, the use of sign language when necessary and applicable, or consideration for hearing aid appointments. However, those with complete hearing loss may require more help. For example, deaf individuals may need an interpreter or translator during peak communication periods, reasonable time to see a hearing specialist during work hours, or written materials.

Visual Impairment

A visual impairment is one that causes an individual to lose sight with the naked eye. Visual impairments usually result in partial or complete blindness, the latter of which can make employment with a traditional employer difficult.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

While individuals with partial blindness may need help reading materials or assistance as they learn new workplace procedures, those with complete blindness may need special workplace accommodations including special seating or technology that uses braille or voice automation.

Chronic Health Impairments

Chronic health impairments can vary widely and are the result of a chronic condition such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or Crohn’s disease, among others. The existence of these conditions can make it difficult for workers to juggle part-time or full-time employment while keeping up on their health care regimen. Because of this, reasonable accommodation may need to be made.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

For a person with a chronic condition, weekly doctor’s appointments can be a hassle. Reasonable accommodation generally means allowing these workers to leave work for their regularly scheduled healthcare appointments. Another common example includes when an employee with diabetes needs to take frequent breaks from work to eat or test their blood sugar levels.

Mobility Impairments

An individual with a mobility impairment may have difficulty getting into and out of their workplace. In certain workplaces, a mobility impairment can mean not being able to physically get in the front door of the building, or not being able to reach certain parts of the building due to an inability to move in the way the particular path requires.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation for individuals with a mobility impairment usually involves making adjustments or modifications to a building’s structure and/or entrance. This can include adding ramps or guard rails, smoothing out walkways, or the addition of a large-stall restroom to accommodate a wheel chair. A person who has trouble standing for a long time may also be accommodated with a seating arrangement that allows them to do their job while sitting.

Cognitive Impairments

Cognitive impairments can range from mild to severe, but usually exist when a person has trouble remembering, learning, concentrating, or absorbing the information in front of them. Those with a mild impairment may be able to complete their everyday activities with little assistance, while those with a severe cognitive impairment may not be able to speak or write at certain times, understand information presented to them, or make decisions regarding their work or life.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

When a person has a mild cognitive impairment, what they usually need is extra support. This could mean having another employee nearby to assist and answer questions, but it could also mean having a trained staff member on-hand to provide ongoing support. Those with severe cognitive impairments may have trouble performing their jobs even after reasonable accommodation has been made.

Psychological Disabilities

Like cognitive impairments, psychological disabilities can vary widely in their function and scope. Most of the time, however, these disabilities influence our emptions, cognitions, and behaviors and can result in undue burden or struggle in the workplace. Psychological disabilities may include anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia, along with a variety of other conditions. While physical disabilities are easy to see and cater to, psychological disabilities are harder to see and detect. Because of this, employers often struggle to recognize the need for reasonable accommodation or come up with a useful solution.

What’s a reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation for those with psychological disabilities should depend on the disorder and the individual’s needs. Common reasonable accommodation can include flexible workplaces or the ability to telecommute, part-time hours or job sharing, sick leave for mental health issues or flexible use of vacation time, flexible break times, flexible food and beverage policies, and on-site job coaches.

Common Ways Employers Discriminate Against the Disabled: William Goren Q&A

To find out more about rights for individuals with disabilities, we reached out to William D. Goren. Goren is a Decatur, Georgia attorney, consultant, blogger, and author of “Understanding the ADA,” fourth edition (ABA 2013), and numerous articles on the rights of persons with disabilities.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation is anything that gets the person with a disability to the same starting line as a person without a disability. After that, it is up to the person with a disability to show what he or she can do. The only limitation on that obligation is the employer does not have to make a reasonable accommodation that would either constitute an undue financial burden, which is almost impossible to show since the burden is measured against the entire financial resources of the company. Most accommodations range from $500-$1,400 or less. In the alternative, the employer must show an undue logistical burden. In other words, would the accommodation fundamentally alter the nature of the job?

What are common ways in which employers discriminate against workers with disabilities — both when they apply for work and when they are already employed?

With respect to a person already employed, there are many different ways an employer can discriminate against a person with a disability.

First, the employer does not engage with the employee in the interactive process. Or, if they do, they are responsible for the process breaking down. Keep in mind, that magic words are not required to activate the interactive process, which is another mistake I have seen employers make.

Second, employers automatically assume that attendance is an essential function of the job. That is not always the case. Whether attendance is an essential function of the job depends on a variety of factors such as: where the employee must work as part of the team, the job requires face-to-face interaction with clients and other employees, or the job requires the employee to work with items and equipment that are on site.

Third, employers make the mistake of not understanding how a variety of different laws, including but not limited to the Family and Medical Leave Act, overlap with the ADA. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act certification requirements are different than the ADA reasonable accommodation requirements. Also, it is possible that a reasonable accommodation under the ADA could be extended leave once the Family and Medical Leave Act leave expires.

Fourth, the employer has inadequate training of employees on the ADA. It isn’t always clear to me just what the qualifications are of the people who do the training. Make sure that individual or individuals is knowledgeable about the ADA. A related problem that often occurs is where a supervisor changes and that supervisor decide to go in a different direction than what was already working.

Fifth, an employer requires a person who is injured to certify that they cannot come back to work unless they are 100% healed. For years, this was a common practice with regard to workers compensation. However, under the ADA this doesn’t work because the issue there is whether a person can do the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations.

What should someone do if they believe they have been discriminated against under the ADA? 

When a person believes they have been discriminated against under the ADA, there are several things they should consider doing. These are, which are not necessarily in any particular order: contacting human resources of the company; utilizing the company’s internal grievance procedure, if one exists: contacting a knowledgeable attorney, and filing a charge with the EEOC or a state equivalent agency (preferably after contacting an attorney). A union rep may be another resource as well.

Finding a Job When You’re Disabled

For a person with a disability, looking for employment can be an especially stressful event. Not only must you navigate the same job search problems as everyone else, but you have the added worry that your disability will keep you from getting the job you want.

However, some employers have proven to be exceptionally accommodating to individuals with disabilities, and there are even job fairs that highlight these opportunities. Many employers understand that, with reasonable accommodation, most individuals with disabilities can excel in their careers.

Online Career Fairs

While traditional career fairs can be downright exhausting, online career fairs offer an alternative. With an online career fair, you may be able to find the perfect fit without the hassle and stress of dressing up, driving to a traditional hiring event, and enduring the long lines you can often find there.

While this list does not all include every online job fairs available, it’s a good place to start:

Disability-Friendly Job Boards

American Foundation for the Blind

The American Foundation for the Blind helps people with various stages of vision loss create exceptional and fulfilling lives while offering resources that can help with education, career, and family life. The foundation also lobbies for and promotes helpful and fair laws that assist citizens with all stages of vision loss with their everyday lives.

National Association of the Deaf

The National Association for the Deaf is the premier resource for individuals with a hearing disability or impairment. Through outreach, lobbying, and education, the NAD helps individuals with hearing loss get past their disabilities and get support from their peers.

GettingHired.com

GettingHired.com promises to “bridge the gap between job seekers with disabilities and employers looking to hire.” Meanwhile, the site also connects individuals with disabilities with mentors that can assist them with their job search, provide them with material and emotional support, and give them valuable insight into their company or field. Through GettingHired.com, persons can search for jobs in their area and browse resources that can be helpful in their search.

Lift-Inc.

Lift, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that focuses its efforts on hiring, training, and placing people with disabilities in particular career fields. For the most part, the short list includes information on technology jobs, such as those in computer programming and information systems. However, other professions and career fields may be available for placement as well.

AbilityJobs.com

AbilityJobs.com offers resources and job listings aimed at individuals with disabilities. In addition to job boards and employment resources, the site also offers a resume bank filled with thousands of resumes for prospective employers. Job seekers can enter their information and credentials and look for a job, while employers can browse the site for potential candidates to fill open positions.

HireDS.com

Hire Disability Solutions is another website meant to connect individuals with disabilities with employment opportunities. According to HireDS, studies have shown that people with disabilities are extremely loyal to their employer and tend to stay in their jobs longer. Hire DS helps businesses connect with new workers who are able to bring valuable insight and work performance to the table.

Reader Resources

Worker’s Rights

The ADA: Your Employment Rights as an Individual with a Disability

Read about your legal rights as an individual with a disability, along with steps you can take if you feel you have been discriminated against.

Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act

Read all about the Americans with Disabilities Act and the legal protections you can expect as a person with a disability.

DisabledPerson.com

Access the premier job board for individuals with disabilities.

Disability.gov

Read through the ultimate resource for individuals with disabilities, and browse advice on lifestyle, employment and health issues.

National Council on Disability

The National Council on Disability offers additional resources and up-to-date news on events and issues that affect the disabled community.

Employment & Career Development

Ticket to Work

Ticket to Work helps disabled individuals find the right job for their needs and navigate any work-related issues that might arise.

Disability Benefits 101

Read through the latest resources and information on disabilities, health coverage, and benefits.

Office of Disability Employment Policy

Read about news and issues concerning disabled individuals.

Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

Browse a variety of career and higher education opportunities that may be available to you.

Disability Rights and Advocacy Groups

The American Association of People with Disabilities

This organization promote empowerment and participation among people with disabilities.

U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission – LEAD Initiative

This site promotes a national outreach and education campaign that aims to boost employment of individuals with disabilities with the federal government.

Benefits for Individuals with Disabilities

Tax Benefit for Individuals with Disabilities

Read about tax breaks for individuals with disabilities.

Medicaid Employment Initiatives

Find out whether you qualify for government health insurance for low-income individuals.

Social Security Benefits for People with Disabilities

Read about social security disability insurance, and how it would benefit you.

Tax Benefits for Businesses Who Have Employees with Disabilities

Learn about the tax credits some businesses receive for employment individuals with disabilities.

Updated: July 27, 2017