Labor and Employment

Disability Discrimination and Your Rights Under the ADA

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn what disability discrimination is and how to enforce your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits workplace discrimination against employees and applicants with disabilities. This means your employer may not fire you, discipline you, or refuse to promote you because you have a disability. You are also protected from harassment based on your disability. For example, if you face unkind comments and jokes at work because of your disability, and it is severe or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment, you may have a harassment claim.

The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, unless it would create an undue hardship for the company.

The ADA applies to employers with at least 15 employees. Many states (and some local governments) have also passed laws prohibiting disability discrimination, and some of these laws apply to smaller employers. (Learn more about each state’s discrimination laws.)

Are You a Qualified Person With a Disability?

You are protected by the ADA if you are a qualified person with a disability.

You are qualified under the ADA if you:

  • have the necessary experience, licenses, education, and other qualifications for the position, and
  • you can perform the essential functions of your job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

You have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, like sleeping, thinking, walking, breathing, seeing, or hearing. Major life activities include the proper functioning of bodily systems, too. For example, if you have been diagnosed with early-stage cancer, you have a disability if normal cell growth and the proper functioning of your body’s immune system are substantially limited, even if no one would guess you are sick.

Even if you are not currently disabled, the law also protects you if you have a history of disability or your employer believes you have a disability, even if you don’t. For example, if you have a limp that doesn’t restrict your mobility, but your employer refuses to promote you to a managerial position that requires walking through job sites because it mistakenly believes your ability to walk is substantially limited, that would violate the ADA.

Reasonable Accommodations

Your employer must make reasonable accommodations to allow you to do your job, unless it would create an undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation is simply a change to the company’s usual policies and rules, to the physical work environment, or to the tools and methods used to do your job. For example, if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, your employer might provide you with voice-activated software. If you have an auditory processing disability, your manager might provide your job assignments in writing each week. Or, if you use a wheelchair, your employer might change the height of your desk to allow you to work and move around more easily.

An accommodation is not reasonable if it creates an undue hardship: significant expense or trouble, given the size, resources, and nature of the employer. A hugely expensive change to the physical structure of the workplace might not be reasonable, for example.

If You Are Facing Disability Discrimination

If your employer has denied you a reasonable accommodation, excluded you from workplace events or meetings because of your disability, disciplined or fired you because of your disability, or otherwise acted in a discriminatory way, you should talk to an experienced employment attorney right away. An attorney can help you evaluate the situation and decide how best to protect yourself. For example, if your employer has denied your request for a reasonable accommodation, an attorney can help you make the request more forcefully, backing it up with your willingness to take legal action to enforce your rights if the employer won’t fulfill its legal obligations.

If you have already lost your job, an attorney can help you file an administrative charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state’s fair employment practices agency. The agency will investigate and perhaps try to settle your claim. Even if this process doesn’t successfully resolve your dispute, it’s a mandatory prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against your employer.

To learn more about hiring a lawyer to help you with a disability discrimination problem, see Finding a Lawyer for Your Disability Discrimination Case.

Questions For Your Lawyer

  • Can my employer offer me a less effective accommodation based on cost?
  • Can I be disciplined if my job performance suffers because my employer won’t provide a reasonable accommodation?
  • Do I have to give my manager access to my medical records to prove that I have a disability?

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