Your Rights as an Employee and Job Seeker
Workers With Disabilities and the ADA
Employees who have a disability may face unique workplace challenges, from inaccessible workstations to schedule rigidity. Denial of reasonable accommodation requests can constitute discrimination. Explore the common types of discrimination encountered by job seekers and employees with disabilities, how to handle these situations and what protections are afforded by law.
What Does the ADA Mean for Workers With Disabilities?
Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits the discrimination of private, state and local employees or job applicants with disabilities. These same protections are provided to federal employees under the Rehabilitation Act. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), disability-based discrimination occurs when an employer or other covered entity “treats a qualified employee or applicant unfavorably because of disability. The disability laws forbid discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”
The ADA was created in 1990 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," to provide a "clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities."
Overview of the Americans With Disabilities Act
The ADA protects individuals with permanent or temporary physical or mental impairments. It also includes those with a medical condition or undergoing medical treatment that limits their ability to perform one or more major life activities, such as self-care and communication. The ADA's protections include:
Prohibiting discrimination against workers and applicants with a disability. The EEOC specifies that this covers all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, salary, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits and any other term or condition of employment.
Requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for a qualified applicant as long as it would not “pose an undue hardship” on their business or its ability to operate.
Providing equal opportunities for applicants and employees with a disability who work in private, state and local government positions.
Covering employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, employment agencies and labor organizations.
Safeguarding the existence, nature or severity of an employee's disability from their employers. Employers can ask about a person’s ability to perform the job, but can’t ask for a medical examination unless it’s required for all employees.
Ensuring employers keep medical records confidential. This rule is in effect whether or not a medical record contains information on the employee's disability or health condition.
Making it unlawful to retaliate against an individual who openly opposes discrimination.
Mandating the establishment of Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD) and/or telephone relay services.
Who Is Protected Under the ADA?
Since 1990, the ADA has provided civil rights protections to all qualified individuals with disabilities, including job seekers and employees. Although it's not always clear whether certain health conditions are considered a disability, those who fit into the following categories are generally protected under the ADA:
Individuals with a disability
Anyone with a physical or mental impairment, receives medical treatment or has a medical condition is considered to have a disability. Physical or mental impairments substantially limit one or more major life activities, including walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, communication and self-care.
Individuals with a history of impairment
Someone who has had a documented disability or has been on medical leave previously is also covered under the ADA.
Subjects of disability-related employer discrimination
Even if they don't have a disability, the ADA protects individuals from workplace discrimination on the basis of perceived physical or mental impairment.
Legislation That Protects the Rights of Workers With Disabilities
Several additional laws are in place to protect the rights of employees with disabilities. Here are some to remember if you find yourself dealing with disability-based discrimination on the job.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973
According to the EEOC, Sections 501, 503, 504 and 505 protect the rights of employees and job seekers with disabilities. Section 501 “prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the federal sector.” Section 505 contains provisions governing remedies and attorney's fees under Section 501.
Section 503 also pertains to federal contractors and is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which ensures compliance with the ADA. Section 504 “prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities” who are employed and involved in its programs.
Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)
The WIOA was signed into law in 2014 to strengthen the U.S. workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the WOIA aims to “help job seekers access employment, education, training and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy.”
Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA)
The OFCCP also enforces VEVRAA. This law aims to prevent federal contracts from discriminating against veterans who have disabilities while employed.
If you've been mistreated or discriminated against on the job, you can contact the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for advice or to file charges. The DOL also oversees the Administrative Review Board (ARB), which issues decisions in cases regarding worker protection laws.
Types of Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
If someone has a disability or is perceived to have a disability, it is illegal to discriminate against them during the hiring process or while on the job. Unfair or discriminatory practices on the job may take many forms. Here are some examples of illegal practices.
Refusal of equal hiring, promotion and pay due to your disability
An employer can’t treat you differently because of a disability. By law, you're entitled to equal consideration regarding the hiring process and any promotions or salary increases.
Rejection of a reasonable accommodation request
Under the law, an employer must provide the accommodation as long as the request is reasonable and based on a disability-related need. They should also involve you in the process of making the accommodation. Although they may not provide exactly what you requested, you should receive an accommodation that works for you.
Forced disclosure of your disability or condition
Although an employer can legally ask if you can perform the duties required by a specific position, they cannot force you to disclose whether you have a disability or medical condition. This information is considered private and confidential.
Harassment creates a hostile work environment and need not be tolerated. Harassment related to a person’s disability from coworkers, contractors, supervisors and even vendors should be documented and reported.
Employment Rights for Workers With a Disability
Workers who have a disability should know their rights when it comes to requesting reasonable accommodations at work. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, disability rights include:
- Federal law protection from discrimination in employment
- Withholding notice of your disability from an employer when applying for a job or when hired, even if you need reasonable accommodation at a later date
- The inability of an employer to refuse to hire or promote, fire or demote, harass or pay you less because of your disability
- Protection from unnecessary medical inquiries at work
- Asking for and receiving reasonable accommodations
Federal disability nondiscrimination laws do not extend to private employers with fewer than 15 employees. Use the following resources to learn more about your rights as well as the laws and agencies that protect them:
- U.S. Department of Labor: The U.S. DOL provides a detailed overview of the laws designed to protect employees who have disabilities and lists numerous websites with additional information.
- American Civil Liberties Union: The ACLU provides information on federal laws that protect disability rights.
- Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP): The U.S. DOL’s OEDP provides outreach services and educates people with disabilities and employers on the ADA and Rehabilitation Act to protect the rights of both employees and job seekers with disabilities.
- National Disability Rights Network (NDRN): The NDRN has protection and advocacy agencies across the country and is the nation's largest provider of legal services for people with disabilities.
- Equal Rights Advocates (ERA): The ERA provides free legal assistance to individuals mistreated at work. They also help employers develop more inclusive practices in the workplace.
Disability Employment Services by State
For questions regarding employment or concerns related to instances of discrimination, you can contact your state’s office that handles employment issues for guidance. Find your state’s designated agency in the table below.
Disability Employment Agency
An employer is legally prohibited from asking a person with a disability questions about their disability during a job interview. They also can’t request that the individual undergo a medical examination. However, the employer may ask if job accommodations are needed.
Once a job offer has been made, the employer can ask limited disability-related questions or require a medical exam as long as all applicants are treated the same way.
What Is Reasonable Accommodation?
There are some reasonable accommodations people with disabilities can request when going through the hiring process or while on the job. According to the ADA National Network, a reasonable accommodation is any change to the application or hiring process, the job, the way the job is done or the work environment that allows a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities.
How to Discuss Reasonable Accommodations With Your Employer
Although it might feel awkward or intimidating, discussing reasonable accommodation at work is necessary. If it's easier for you, put the request in writing or email. Remember that you're within your legal rights to request accommodations that let you perform the essential functions of your job at an optimal level. Any requests that don't create undue hardship for the employer are considered reasonable under the ADA.
Request accommodations through your employer
Your employer or HR representative may need to learn what your needs are. When requesting accommodations from them, be specific about your needs and how they can meet them. Consider putting your request in writing to have a record for all parties.
Clearly state your needs
Precisely state what you need and explain how these accommodations will allow you to do your job well. Whenever possible, provide examples of the accommodations in your request. If your employer needs help understanding the type of accommodation you're requesting, consider bringing in a representative from HR to facilitate.
Be open to alternatives
Your employer or HR representative may suggest a different accommodation than you had in mind. If their alternative works, great! If it's inadequate, you can reissue your original request or tell them that another modification is necessary.
Be patient but persistent
Your employer may need time to implement your accommodations, but that's not an excuse to ignore your request. Be patient and persistent about what it will take to succeed at your job. Remember, the law is on your side.
Examples of Reasonable Accommodation in the Office
Accommodations may be requested for various issues — from mobility impairments to psychological disabilities. Below are categories of impairments and common examples of reasonable accommodations for them.
Hearing impairment is a condition that prevents an individual from receiving sounds — completely or partially — through their ear(s). Mild hearing loss can result in difficulty hearing faint speech or noises in another room. A person with severe hearing loss may be unable to distinguish any sounds. Types of hearing loss include conductive, sensorineural, mixed and central.
An individual with partial hearing loss may be accommodated with Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) or special seating arrangements so they can better hear within a group setting. Those with complete hearing loss may require a sign language interpreter, Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) live captioning or information shared in a written format. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may also request time to see an audiologist during work hours.
A visual impairment wholly or partially obstructs someone's ability to see. Ordinary glasses, contact lenses, surgery and medication typically cannot correct a visual impairment.
Assistive visual technology is reasonable accommodation for someone with impaired vision. This includes magnifying aids, assistive reading software like Braille for translating documents or voice automation. They may also receive modified workplace seating.
Chronic Health Impairment
Various chronic health impairments result from long-standing ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity or Crohn's disease, among others. These conditions can make it difficult for workers to juggle part-time or full-time employment while keeping up with their health care regimen.
Rigid work schedules can be especially challenging for people with a persisting condition. Those with a chronic illness may request the ability to leave work for their regularly scheduled health care appointments or other essential needs that arise. For example, an employee with diabetes may take more frequent breaks to eat or test their blood sugar levels.
Someone with a mobility impairment may have difficulty getting into and around their workplace. Reaching particular objects may be an issue due to their height or presence of physical barriers like stairs.
Reasonable accommodations for mobility impairments usually involve adjusting or modifying a building's structure, such as adding ramps or guardrails, smoothing walkways and ensuring a wheelchair-accessible restroom. Some may request to work in a first-floor office or from home. A person who has trouble standing for a long time may also receive a seating arrangement that allows them to do their job while sitting.
Cognitive impairments include difficulty with learning, reading, concentrating or remembering information and can range from mild to severe. Although those with mild impairment may be able to complete everyday activities with little assistance, more debilitating cognitive impairment can obstruct one's ability to speak and write, understand new information and make decisions regarding their work.
Cognitive impairments are wide-ranging. Employees with difficulty retaining new information can be accommodated with documented instruction. Extended time to complete tasks, checklists, frequent break times to prevent fatigue and work-from-home flexibility are all ways that someone with a cognitive impairment may be reasonably accommodated at work.
Like cognitive impairments, psychological disabilities are broad in scope and often affect one's emotions, cognitions and behaviors. Psychological disabilities may include anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia, among other conditions. Psychological disabilities aren't always apparent but are just as deserving of accommodation.
Reasonable accommodations for those with psychological disabilities might include flexible workplaces and the ability to telecommute, work part-time hours or job share, ample sick leave for mental health issues or flexible use of vacation time, flexible break times, food and beverage policies and on-site job coaches.
How to Confront Discrimination
Discrimination based on a person’s disability is against the law. Although it might be uncomfortable, those who experience this at work or during the hiring process are encouraged to report the issue to a supervisor. Outside agencies can also be helpful in mediating particular situations if needed.
Navigating Unfair Treatment
If you believe you've experienced discrimination in the workplace or when applying for a job, there are several steps you can take to rectify the issue:
Speak to those you work with about your condition and needs
If you feel comfortable doing so, discuss your disability with your supervisor or coworkers so they understand your needs. Fostering awareness may help you and others in similar situations avoid unfair treatment in the future.
Address the person directly
If an issue arises with a specific individual, you may want to speak with them about it in the presence of your supervisor or Human Resources (HR) representative. This may help clarify matters or allow everyone to develop a solution.
Reach out to the HR department
Reach out to someone from Human Resources to explain the situation and request assistance. Document the advice you received and what steps will be taken to rectify the matter. If the issue is not resolved, follow up with HR.
Contact your EEOC
If you need additional support in resolving the matter after talking to the HR Department, contact your local EEOC to file a claim. Provide them with documentation of the incident and ask what action they plan to take.
File a charge of discrimination and pursue a legal solution
Consider filing a claim with your state’s Department of Labor or Protection and Advocacy agency, which offers free legal services specifically for individuals with disabilities.
Experts Q&A: How Can Employees Protect Themselves From Disability-Based Discrimination?
MoneyGeek spoke with subject matter experts to gain additional insight into the rights of workers with disabilities and what you can do if you face discrimination on the job.
- What should employees do to protect themselves against disability-related discrimination?
- What are common ways employers discriminate against workers with a disability?
- What advice do you have for people with disabilities when it comes to asking for accommodations at work?
- How does the ADA protect people with disabilities on the job?
- Is there anything else you'd like to add or any examples of discrimination you'd like to share?
Assistant Director of the Northeast ADA Center
Assistant to Director of Policy at Disability Rights New Jersey
Filing a Discrimination Complaint
If you believe that you have been subject to unfair treatment in the workplace or in a hiring situation, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or with a state or local agency. Taking the following steps will help you prepare to file:
Gather all key information — including the names of those involved, the date, time and location of the incident — and any email, photo or video evidence that supports your case. Keep a copy of this information for your records.
Document your experience
Explain what happened in precise detail. If you have evidence, label each document so the person reviewing your case understands how it supports your discrimination complaint.
Submit the complaint
After double-checking that everything is correct and complete, you're ready to submit your discrimination complaint. You can file your complaint yourself, or a witness can file the complaint on your behalf. Note that there are time limits to file a complaint.
Employment Disparities for Workers With Disabilities
The BLS reports that the number of employed people with disabilities is on the rise. However, according to the Center for American Progress, their rates continue to lag significantly behind those of their able-bodied counterparts due to continued ableism in the labor market.
According to the BLS, the labor force participation rate (23.1%) and the employment–population ratio (21.3%) for people with a disability increased in 2022. Both measures are the highest since 2008. The unemployment rate for people with a disability decreased by 2.5% to 7.6% in 2022.
Employment Rates and Disability Status
Labor Force Participation Rate
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Inclusive Employment Opportunities for Job Seekers With Disabilities
There are several employment avenues for individuals with disabilities. In addition to well known ones like networking, career service centers and online employment platforms, there are also hiring resources that cater to the more unique needs of job seekers with disabilities.
Online Career Fairs
Job search engines and online career fairs are excellent ways to find openings that align with your qualifications. Your state might also feature some of the top cities for job seekers, providing ample employment options.
Some helpful resources to help you begin your search:
- National Council on Independent Living: A section on employment can be found on the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) website. The NCIL staff advocate for more employment opportunities for people with disabilities. They can also help individuals find or prepare for employment.
- Penn State Online Career Fairs: This website shares information on career fairs held at the University. These events are hosted by staff from career services throughout the school year.
- Virtual Career Fairs for Veterans: Veterans can search for jobs on this website and learn about upcoming career fairs. A live chat is available for veterans looking for additional assistance regarding employment.
Disability-Friendly Job Boards
Several disability-specific websites post job openings and career advice to help with your search, including:
- AbilityJobs.com: This website offers employment resources and job listings for individuals with disabilities. The site also offers a resume bank for employers.
- American Foundation for the Blind (AFB): The AFB provides resources to people with vision loss. The foundation also lobbies for laws to help those with vision loss.
- GettingHired.com: Individuals with disabilities connect with mentors who assist them with their job search. People can search for jobs in their area through the website.
- HireDS.com: HireDS aims to connect individuals with disabilities with employment opportunities. It also helps businesses connect with workers with valuable insight.
- Job Resources by State for Adults With Learning Disabilities: Individuals with learning disabilities can find helpful resources on this site. Staff also work to protect the rights of individuals who have learning disabilities.
- National Association of the Deaf (NAD): The NAD provides resources and support to individuals with hearing impairments. Staff also engage in outreach, lobbying and educational services.
Before you begin your job search or attempt to handle any work-related discrimination matters, Miller suggests becoming familiar with the following websites:
- Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA): Learn more about disability rights and the laws that protect people with disabilities.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): Find out what Federal protections are in place to ensure equal employment and prohibit discrimination.
- National Disability Rights Network (NDRN): This organization offers P&As and Client Assistance Programs (CAPS) providers for workers with disabilities.
Where to Gain and Boost Professional Skills
If you want to find a job or advance in your career, some websites can help. Here are a few to start:
- Job Seekers With Disabilities: Respect Ability offers information and resources to help people with a disability search for a job. There is also a section that covers the rights of people who have disabilities.
- Support Resources for Students With Disabilities: MoneyGeek also shares information on this website to help students who have disabilities find a job after graduation.
Expert Insight on the Rights of Workers With a Disability
MoneyGeek spoke with subject matter experts in the industry who provided insight into the rights of job seekers and individuals with disabilities. Their expertise can help you better understand specific issues surrounding the rights of workers with a disability.
- Can you discuss a few common examples of discrimination people who have disabilities face on the job or when searching for a job?
- How do you recommend individuals who have disabilities address discrimination in the workplace or while job-seeking?
- Can you recommend any helpful resources?
Director of Planning and Public Policy at the Long Island Center for Independent Living
Chair of the NJ Disability Action Committee
There are available resources that can be of help to individuals who have disabilities who have dealt with discrimination in the workforce.
- ADA Information, Guidance and Training: Northeast ADA Center staff provide information, guidance, and training on implementation of all aspects of the ADA.
- Disability Inclusion at Work: Employer guidance resource on how to foster disability inclusion in the workplace.
- Disability Rights Advocates: Disability Rights Advocates is a nonprofit disability rights legal center with offices across that country with staff that handle matters related to discrimination against the disability community.
- Disability Talent: Job seekers with disabilities can search for employment opportunities. Staff also work with employers to help them create a more inclusive workplace and hire more individuals who have disabilities.
- National Trends in Disability Employment: Each month, the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability release National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) custom reports and hold webinars covering employment data on Americans with and without disabilities.
- Project WHEN: The nonprofit group works to find solutions to end discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
- U.S. Health and Human Services: The U.S. Department of Health’s Office for Civil Rights created this fact sheet that provides information on how to file complaints when the ADA is violated.
About Kelly Boyd
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- Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics - 2022." Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Center for American Progress. "Removing Obstacles for Disabled Workers Would Strengthen the U.S. Labor Market." Accessed July 3, 2023.
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- U.S. Department of Labor. "Employee Rights." Accessed June 23, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Labor. "Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act." Accessed July 4, 2023.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Charge Statistics (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 1997 Through FY 2022." Accessed June 26, 2023.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Disability Discrimination and Employment Decisions." Accessed July 28, 2023.
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- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "The Rehabilitation Act of 1973." Accessed June 26, 2023.