Disability in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide

Last updated: June 17, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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Disability in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide
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Having a disability doesn’t need to hold you back from a fulfilling career. More and more employers are taking steps to accommodate workers with physical and mental disabilities.

Disability in the workplace doesn’t need to be hidden. Workers have legal protections in place, meaning employers cannot discriminate against them on the basis of their disability.

This guide will go over everything you need to know about disability in the workplace. It will cover workers’ rights and protections as well as how to identify workplaces that have implemented disability-friendly policies.

Let’s dive in.

What counts as a disability in American workplaces?

For workers in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008 (ADA) defines a workplace disability as any mental or physical impairment that significantly impacts your ability to perform any life activity.

This means a disability doesn’t have to be a physical one. Any condition that impairs your capabilities can be considered a disability, including mental health disorders. The ADA protects the rights of persons with disabilities in the workplace.

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The ADA is enforced by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state and local civil rights enforcement agencies that work with the Commission. Together, these agencies work to protect disabled employees from workplace discrimination.

Rules are strict, and employers can face significant consequences for discriminating against disabled employees. There have also been more efforts in recent years to expand protections, and more and more employers are implementing diversity-promoting policies.

And it appears to be working: The most up-to-date report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 21.3% of persons with disabilities are employed in the US, an increase from 19.1% in 2021.

Disabled workers can benefit from understanding their rights as workers. So, what are your rights when it comes to disability in the workplace?

Employment rights for people living with disabilities

In the United States, there are two main categories of protection under the various acts related to employment laws and disabled workers.

The first prevents discrimination. Acts of discrimination could include a company choosing not to hire someone due to their disability or firing an existing employee for the same reason. Harassment of workers with a disability is also illegal and could be grounds for a hostile environment claim.

The second protection category requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. For instance, employers may be required to provide specialized equipment to ensure a worker with a disability can complete their job duties.

Anti-discrimination protections

First, the ADA states that an employee who can perform “essential functions” and basic skills within their job description can’t legally be discriminated against.

In other words, if you are otherwise qualified for the job and capable of completing the required tasks, an employer cannot legally discriminate against you on the basis of your disability.

For example, an office worker who is wheelchair-bound (but otherwise qualified for the job) should not be discriminated against when applying for a standard office job because it could be reasonably expected that they could complete the required tasks.

On the other hand, someone who is wheelchair-bound would not be qualified to manually unload trucks — so an employer could choose not to hire them because they’re simply not physically able to do the job.

Similarly, workers must be qualified for the job and able to complete the required duties to be protected under the ADA. You must meet educational, work experience, and technical skill requirements.

To qualify for protection under the ADA, you must have a “substantial impairment” that significantly restricts or limits a certain life activity, such as hearing, speaking, seeing, walking, breathing, performing manual labor, caring for yourself, working, or learning. Minor impairments will not qualify.

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Protections apply both during the hiring process and once you’re already an employee. An employer cannot choose not to hire you, nor can they fire you due to your disability.

However, remember that you still must meet all the requirements and perform your job well. Having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t get fired; it just means you can’t get fired because you have a disability.

Most employers must comply with ADA regulations. This includes the following:

  • Private employers

  • State and local governments

  • Employment agencies

  • Labor organizations

  • Labor management committees

And it’s not just the ADA that protects disabled workers. Legislation like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also restricts employers from discriminating against employees based on their disability status.

In this regard, there are multiple levels of legal protection — and multiple agencies enforcing these rules. The Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission both enforce these rules on a federal level, and state agencies also play a role.

Reasonable accommodation protections

Legislation in place also requires employers to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to employees with disabilities to help ensure that they can complete their required work tasks.

But what is a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is any adjustment to a position and/or work environment that allows a qualified applicant with a disability to participate in either the job application process, the essential functions of the job, or both. The idea is to offer a level playing field, so to speak, to allow disabled employees to enjoy the same employment benefits and privileges as employees without disabilities.

A reasonable accommodation made by an employer might include the following:

  • Providing specialized devices or modified equipment

  • Modifying work schedules or offering part-time work as an alternative to full-time

  • Reassigning an employee to a vacant position

  • Job restructuring

  • Providing interpreters or other assistance

  • Modifying training courses, exams, or employee policies

  • Modifying the physical workspace to make it accessible to workers with disabilities

For example, an employer could reasonably be asked to provide ergonomic work equipment for someone with chronic pain or carpal tunnel. Likewise, they could be reasonably asked to modify the office to accommodate an employee in a wheelchair.

Of course, the term is “reasonable accommodation.” If the employer can show that the required accommodation would be a significant hardship (e.g., if it would be very difficult or expensive), they may have grounds to not accommodate that employee.

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For example, if a small business operates on the third floor of a shared office building that has no elevator to provide access for persons with a physical disability, it likely wouldn’t be feasible for the business owner to install an elevator to accommodate a disabled employee.

The distinction of what is “reasonable,” however, is somewhat vague. Ultimately, if the law gets involved through a hostile work environment claim or discrimination claim, it’s up to the employer to prove that an accommodation is prohibitively difficult or expensive.

In addition to resources provided by employers, state agencies can help. Many states have vocational rehabilitation programs to help disabled workers rejoin the workforce or improve their productivity in their current roles.

How to identify workplaces fully committed to being disability-inclusive

While workers are protected by legislation like the ADA, the reality is that some workplaces and employers are more disability-inclusive than others. Some of this is due to size; a large company likely has more resources to ensure their offices are up to ADA standards than a small company, for example. Some of this reflects corporate policy, and some is due to other factors.

Regardless, it’s a good idea to seek out disability-inclusive workplaces for your next job application. If a workplace has a genuine disability-friendly culture, you’re more likely to excel in your position — and feel more welcomed in the process.

So let’s go over a variety of ways to identify disability-friendly workplaces and employers.

  1. Look for structured disability policies that follow the law

Disability-friendly workplaces typically have written, clear corporate policies about how they support, accommodate, and welcome employees with disabilities. You can request information on these policies from the company’s human resources (HR) department.

Some examples of policies that companies might have include the following:

  • A fair interviewing process that accommodates disabilities — for instance, the ability to have a sign language interpreter present to support those with a hearing impairment.

  • Inclusive health and safety procedures, such as ADA-compliant exits and audio-visual fire alarms.

  • The ability for disabled employees to work from home or adopt hybrid work schedules.

You can ask for this information during the interview process. Or, if you’ve already been hired, ask the HR department.

  1. Seek out companies that offer organizational training on disability inclusiveness

Companies often have internal training programs around general protocol and company policy. They include sexual harassment and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) courses.

A company that discusses disability inclusiveness during these programs shows that they proactively train their employees to know how to best welcome their coworkers with disabilities.

Companies that provide opportunities for individual development and group training resources are also a good idea to look out for.

  1. Look for physical infrastructure that supports disabled workers

Companies that have the physical infrastructure and accommodations for disabled workers at existing facilities will likely be easier to work with. For instance, if wheelchair ramps are already installed, that’s a good sign that the company has thought ahead and prepared the workplace for access by persons with disabilities.

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The ADA has all sorts of specific requirements for physical accessibility in workplaces, but there are some differences depending on the type and size of the employer. Not all buildings will be fully ADA-compliant.

  1. Find companies that utilize assistive technology

Seventy-two percent of disabled knowledge workers believe outdated tech in the workplace is limiting their work opportunities.

These days, there are many remarkable technologies meant to help employees become more productive and satisfied at their workplaces. Seeking out companies that utilize these resources means you’re more likely to end up working for a forward-thinking firm that is willing to invest in its employees.

  1. Join companies that have existing employees living with disabilities

Many firms are welcoming to employees with disabilities but might not necessarily have direct experience yet. In many cases, firms that have already gone through the process of onboarding new employees living with disabilities will be more familiar with the process — and perhaps more efficient at welcoming new workers.

Plus, these companies are likely to have already clearly defined their disability policy and perhaps even made it a priority to better equip their offices to support all employees equally.

  1. Look for companies that offer equal opportunities for career advancement

In theory, all companies are supposed to offer equal opportunity to their employees when it comes to career advancement and promotions. But the reality is that this isn’t always the case.

Companies with a good reputation among their existing workforce are more likely to offer equal opportunity to their employees.

You can read employee reviews of the company to get an idea or simply look at their existing managerial and executive ranks. Is there diversity among the company’s higher-ups? Is there a diverse workforce with regard to gender identity, disability status, ethnicity, and other characteristics? These are good things to look for when finding your next job.

  1. Seek out firms with a positive company culture and adequate employee support

Company culture is a great determiner of the overall worker experience at a firm. It’s wise to look for firms with a positive company culture, which often means a good work-life balance, opportunities for advancement, good sick time and vacation time policies, and generally satisfied workers.

Again, employee reviews are a good place to start researching a company’s work culture. You can also ask about the culture during your interview.

Good companies will dedicate resources to supporting employees living with disabilities

The bottom line is that workers with disabilities are protected by various laws, most notably the ADA. However, the best companies to work for will go above and beyond the basic requirements to ensure their employees are supported, welcomed, and given the tools necessary to thrive.

You can tell a lot about a company’s culture and priorities by examining its internal policies, not the least of which is its disability policy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the interview process or request details on the company’s internal policy related to disability.

Looking for your next career? The Jobcase job board has millions of jobs available in virtually every industry. Whether you’re looking for an in-person, work-from-home, or hybrid role, you’ll find the best jobs in your area right here.

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