How to Handle Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

Learn what disability discrimination means and what to do if you experience it in the workplace.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated 8/12/2022

If you're facing workplace discrimination because of a disability, you should take action right away. The federal government's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects applicants and employees from disability discrimination in every aspect of employment, from hiring to benefits to termination.

Many states and even local governments have similar laws, and some apply to smaller employers. (The ADA applies only to companies that have at least 15 employees).

This article explains what a disability is under the ADA, when a reasonable accommodation might be required, and what steps to take if you find you believe you are being discriminated against. If you feel in over your head, or you aren't sure what to do at any point, consider consulting with an experienced employment lawyer.

What's a Disability for ADA Purposes?

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that limits at least one major life activity. A major life activity can include a basic task such as standing, walking, sleeping, lifting, reading, and following instructions or a major bodily function like the working of the digestive system, circulatory system, reproductive system, or respiratory system.

For more information on what the ADA protects, visit our section of articles on the ADA or go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) website.

What Is Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?

If you're disabled under the ADA, you have the right to request that your employer make a reasonable accommodation to the workplace or your work that allows you to continue to do your job.

Examples of workplace modifications might include providing:

  • a standing desk
  • a flexible schedule
  • a designated parking space
  • a change in job duties
  • improved wheelchair accessibility
  • a work-from-home option, or
  • a change in equipment.

To decide on the most appropriate accommodations, you and your employer should take part in a good-faith "interactive process," which essentially means back-and-forth discussion. Your employer must make reasonable modifications unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

Undue Hardship and the ADA

The ADA defines undue hardship as significant difficulty or expense to the company. (42 U.S.C. 12111). A number of factors determine whether an accommodation would cause undue hardship, including:

  • the cost of the accommodation
  • the size and financial resources of the employer, and
  • the accommodation costs the employer has already incurred in the workplace.

If a proposed accommodation is so expensive that it would threaten the viability of the company, it wouldn't be required under the ADA. But as the EEOC has noted, the vast majority of accommodations are affordable (or even free) and businesses are expected to provide them whenever possible.

How Do I Know If I Was Discriminated Against Because of My Disability?

If you've been treated differently from your colleagues because you have a disability, you've experienced disability discrimination. But employers seldom make such discrimination obvious, for fear of lawsuits and negative publicity.

The following signs might indicate you've experienced illegal discrimination under the ADA:

  • a sudden change in job duties
  • being excluded from important projects or meetings
  • failure to receive a promotion or pay raise
  • reduced hours or wages, or
  • your employer has allowed disability-related harassment, jokes, or offensive comments in the workplace.

No matter what form disability discrimination takes, if you've been the victim of it, you should take the following steps.

Assert Your Rights Under the ADA

Your first step in dealing with disability discrimination is to point it out—and assert your rights. Even though the ADA has been around for decades, a surprisingly large number of employers don't understand the law or know what it requires. And, your employer might not fully understand how your disability does (or does not) affect you.

The good news is that your employer may want to do the right thing, once it gets up to speed on the law. For example, let's say you were denied a promotion to a position that requires significant driving, because your employer believes that your use of a wheelchair will interfere with your ability to travel by car. You might meet with your manager and point out that you are perfectly capable of driving significant distances, as long as your vehicle is outfitted with special equipment.

Because you have a disability, you're entitled to ask for a reasonable accommodation, as discussed above. Your employer could either allow you to use your own outfitted vehicle, reimbursing you for its use, or could modify a company car or van to meet your needs.

Either way, because you're capable of doing the job with a reasonable accommodation, your employer should reconsider you for the promotion. (For detailed information on your rights under the ADA, including reasonable accommodations, see our Americans with Disabilities Act page.)

File an Internal Complaint of Disability Discrimination

Your employer may be willing to reconsider its decision once you have explained your rights. If not, however, it's time to complain more formally. Filing a complaint within your company serves two important purposes:

  • It gives the company an opportunity to correct the problem. Even if your own manager or supervisor doesn't take the problem seriously, the human resources department or higher management might. Filing an internal complaint gives the company another opportunity to do the right thing. If the company seizes the chance, your problem could be resolved quickly, without you having to hire a lawyer.
  • It puts the company on notice, legally, of your discrimination claim. If your complaint isn't resolved to your satisfaction, and you decide to pursue legal action against the company, your employer's failure to step in and resolve the problem will be important. Filing a complaint will show the judge or jury (if it comes to that) that you tried your best to resolve the situation, and it could expose your employer to punitive damages. (Punitive damages are awarded to punish an employer who acts egregiously; to get such an award, you must show that you gave the company an opportunity to correct the problem.)

File a Charge of Disability Discrimination

If your employer doesn't handle your complaint to your satisfaction, you should file a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's antidiscrimination agency.

You must file a charge to preserve your right to sue for disability discrimination: If you don't file a charge before filing your lawsuit, the judge will throw your case out.

There are time limits for filing a charge. In states that have their own law prohibiting disability discrimination, you must file your charge within 300 days of your employer's discriminatory action or decision. In states without a disability discrimination law, you must file within 180 days.

Once you file your charge, the agency will process it. Assuming you've met the procedural requirements, the agency will likely ask your employer to respond to the charge, and then conduct an investigation. The agency may also offer to mediate or settle the case.

When the agency has finished processing a charge, it typically issues a "right-to-sue" letter, which gives you the right to proceed in court with your claims. (You can also request a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC while your charge is still being processed.)

The agency may make a finding that no discrimination occurred, or it may issue a finding that the law was violated. Either way, however, you will typically receive a right-to-sue letter.

Filing a Lawsuit for Discrimination

Once you get your right-to-sue letter, you're free to file a lawsuit against your employer. If you haven't already hired a lawyer, now is the time to do so. The deadlines for filing a lawsuit are very short, and you must meet a number of procedural requirements to avoid having your case thrown out.

An experienced employment lawyer can help you evaluate your claims and decide whether it makes sense to sue. If you do file a lawsuit, you'll need a lawyer's help to prepare the necessary paperwork, gather evidence, push your employer to settle, question witnesses, and ultimately argue your case in court.

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