When to Get an Employment Discrimination Lawyer for Disability Discrimination

If you’ve been fired, denied a job, or mistreated at work because of your disability, see a discrimination lawyer right away.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state and local laws protect employees and job applicants with disabilities from discrimination in employment. Under the ADA, an employer can't discriminate against you in any of the following areas:

  • hiring
  • firing
  • promotions
  • benefits
  • training, or
  • any other aspect of employment.

The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Unfortunately, not all employers comply with the law. If an employer has treated you unfairly because of your disability, you can fight back.

Here's what you need to know about your protections in the workplace and when you should consider hiring a disability discrimination attorney. First, let's look at whether you're situation is protected by the ADA.

Are You Protected by the ADA?

Not all employers are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA applies to all employers with at least 15 employees—including state and local governments. The ADA protects the following types of workers:

  • An employee with a disability. If you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, you're protected by the ADA.
  • An employee with a history of disability. An employer can't discriminate against an employee because the employee used to have a disability or has a record of disability.
  • An employee whom the employer believes has a disability. Even if the employer's wrong in suspecting that an employee has a disability, the employee is protected by the ADA if the employer discriminates against them.

The ADA also protects you from employment discrimination as a job applicant.

Who's Considered Disabled Under the ADA?

A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity—tasks that are basic to everyday life, such as:

  • walking
  • hearing
  • seeing
  • taking care of yourself
  • learning, and
  • speaking.

Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as normal cell growth or the proper functioning of bodily systems, such as your:

  • neurological system
  • endocrine system,
  • reproductive system, or
  • digestive system.

If you meet this definition, you're considered disabled by the ADA. But not every employee who has a disability is protected under the ADA. To be protected, you must also be otherwise qualified for the position—that is, you must:

  • have the necessary qualifications for the job, including:
    • education and training
    • degrees and licensing, and
    • experience, and
  • be able to perform the job's "essential functions," with or without an accommodation.

Essential functions are the central tasks associated with the position—not peripheral or extra duties you're assigned.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA?

Employees and applicants with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations to do their jobs. A reasonable accommodation is a change to the workplace, the job, or other aspects of a position that allow an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job.

Reasonable accommodations could include things like:

  • changing the height of a desk to accommodate an employee who uses a wheelchair
  • offering TTD telephone equipment to an employee with hearing loss
  • making voice-activated software available to an employee with carpal tunnel syndrome or dyslexia, or
  • providing a quiet office with a door that closes for an employee with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

As long as the accommodation you need to be able to do your job doesn't create an undue hardship for your employer, it's considered reasonable under the ADA. An accommodation could be an undue hardship if it's very difficult or costly, considering the employer's nature, size, and resources.

Accommodations that would disrupt the essential functions of the business could also create undue hardship.

What's Considered Disability Discrimination?

Disability discrimination in employment can take many forms. If you have a disability and you think your employer's violating your rights under the ADA, you should contact a disability discrimination lawyer. An experienced employment discrimination lawyer knows what's allowed and what isn't.

Here are some examples of disability discrimination:

Refusing to offer reasonable accommodations in the application process. An employer that requires applicants to take a typing test should make voice-activated software available to applicants with certain types of learning disabilities so that they can dictate the test. But the employer isn't required to guess whether an applicant has such a disability. If you need an accommodation, you should ask for one.

Refusing to consider applicants with disabilities. Some employers assume, incorrectly, that an applicant with a particular disability wouldn't be able to do the job. Employers are allowed to ask applicants whether they could perform the job's essential functions, and can even ask applicants to demonstrate how they would do so.

Requiring applicants to take a medical exam before making a job offer. The ADA prohibits employers from asking you to take a medical examination until the employer has made a conditional offer of employment.

Refusing to discuss reasonable accommodations. If you need a reasonable accommodation, it's up to you to ask for one. But once you make such a request, your employer must engage in conversation with you to try to come up with an effective accommodation. The ADA calls this a "flexible interactive process."

An employer that refuses or ignores an employee's initial request for accommodation has violated the law.

Refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation. The ADA doesn't require your employer to take on undue hardship to accommodate you. But some employers assume, without doing any research, that accommodating an employee would be too costly.

Your employer isn't required to provide the exact accommodation you request. But your employer must work with you to come up with an effective solution.

Singling out employees with disabilities for layoffs or other cuts. Especially in difficult economic times, employers who must lay off staff or cut back hours might target employees with disabilities, believing that they aren't as productive or cost-effective as other employees. Whenever an employer makes job decisions based on an employee's disability, that employer has violated the ADA.

Allowing disability-based harassment. If coworkers tease, tell jokes about, or make fun of an employee's disability, that could constitute illegal harassment. An employer that knowingly tolerates such harassment is violating the law.

Do You Need a Disability Discrimination Attorney?

You should talk to a disability discrimination lawyer right away if:

  • you're facing any of the above situations at work or in the hiring process, or
  • you believe an employer has discriminated against you because of your disability.

To safeguard your right to take the employer to court, you'll need to file a charge of discrimination with a government agency relatively quickly. A disability discrimination attorney can:

  • help you decide whether your case is worth pursuing
  • try to negotiate with your employer to come up with a settlement, or
  • help you take steps to protect your rights.

Learn more about hiring and paying for a disability discrimination attorney.

Updated March 6, 2023

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