Disability Rights in the Workplace: An Overview

Ability Central guides you through the protected rights of people with disabilities at work: reasonable accommodations, safe work environments, and the right to start, keep, and grow your career.

By Ability Central

16 May, 2024

A young white man with short black hair and a prosthetic leg, wearing a checkered shirt gray overalls, sorts wooden planks on a pallet in a brightly-lit warehouse setting

People with disabilities have the right to the same career opportunities as people without disabilities. However, many people don’t understand their protected rights as disabled workers.

This guide is for employees and employers alike seeking a deeper understanding of disability rights in the workplace. In this resource, Ability Central covers:

  • The basics of workers’ rights
  • Protected rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • “Reasonable accommodations” and how to request them
  • Disabled people’s rights to equal opportunity in the hiring process, in the workplace, and when terminating employment
  • How to file a discrimination complaint 
  • Where to find an employment lawyer

We also share additional workplace rights resources to help further your understanding of this complex field.

Let’s get started!

What are worker’s rights? 

In the most basic terms, worker’s rights are the legal and human rights promised to anyone who holds a job. Also called labor rights, worker’s rights have been a part of activism for as long as people have been fighting for equality. 

Various labor movements in the United States and abroad led to the creation of unions, safety and rights organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and wide-sweeping employment laws around the world. However, these laws are not perfect, and activists continue to lobby for fair employment today.   

What rights are protected for every employee? 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), all workers, regardless of age, gender, disability status, or location have basic rights to a fair and healthy workplace. 

Specifically, the ILO defines workers’ most basic rights as:

  • Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
  • Effective abolition of child labor;
  • Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and
  • A safe and healthy working environment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) further expands these most basic rights in American workplaces. According to the EEOC, employees have the right to:

  • Not be harassed or discriminated against.
  • Receive equal pay for equal work.
  • Receive reasonable accommodations.
  • Expect that medical or genetic information shared with an employer will remain confidential.
  • Report or oppose discrimination and participate in discrimination investigations and lawsuits without fear of retaliation or punishment.

What rights are protected for employees with disabilities? 

You may have noticed that both lists contain rights related to discrimination. As a whole, people in the disability community have historically faced discrimination of all kinds, but especially in the workplace.

While the broad laws and many organizations supporting labor rights offer basic protections that apply to people with disabilities, some legislation and labor organizations advocate specifically for the disability community. 

Disability Discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the same way that other laws protect people regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. This applies to employment, school, public services, places that are open to the public, and more. 

In the workplace, the ADA protects people with disabilities’ rights to reasonable accommodations, equal opportunity hiring and career advancement, and protection from retaliation, among others.  

Is my disability protected under the ADA?

The ADA does not keep a strict list of protected disabilities. Instead, the ADA’s protections apply to “anyone with a disability.” 

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  • Has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission), or
  • Is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn)

To learn more about what qualifies as a disability under the ADA, see ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

What workplace rights do people with disabilities have under the ADA? 

Title I of the ADA protects people with disabilities’ right to equal opportunity in finding a job, advancing in a career, and maintaining a safe work environment. Under the ADA, employers must offer reasonable accommodations to workers during the hiring process and for as long as someone remains employed. 

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, see ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

What are “reasonable accommodations”?

These are changes to hiring processes or work procedures that help someone with a disability perform their job well, and they’re required by law.

The exception to this is if incorporating the accommodation or modification would cause the employer “undue hardship,” like costing so much money or being so difficult to implement that it negatively impacts the business.

Accommodations in the workplace might include:

  • Installing wheelchair ramps and mobility aids
  • Hiring an ASL interpreter for meetings or using ASL relay services for calls 
  • Offering alternate application and interview processes
  • Allowing someone to sit in what is traditionally a standing role (i.e. cashiering or teaching)
  • Installing accessible software and hardware
  • Providing materials in Braille or large print
  • Welcoming a service animal into a common workspace
  • Offering a flexible or remote work schedule to accommodate doctors’ appointments and rest breaks

For more information about workplace accommodations for people with disabilities, see Employee Guide: How to Ask for Workplace Disability Accommodations and Employer Guide: How to Offer Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities.

Do part-time workers and contractors still have ADA protections? 

Yes. Part-time workers and contractors are covered by the ADA. This means employers have to offer contractors and part-time employees the same rights, equal opportunities, and accommodations they offer to full-time or salaried employees.

However, a popular employer defense in disability discrimination cases is that certain jobs require full-time hours to complete the work effectively. Under this reasoning, an employee who can only work part time due to a disability is not a “qualified” individual. 

Each disability discrimination case is different. If you, a coworker, or a loved one believe you have been discriminated against, contact the EEOC or an employment lawyer near you.

Do all employers have to follow Title I regulations?

Under Title I of the ADA, all employers must comply with ADA requirements.

The exceptions to this rule are:

  • Companies operating for only twenty weeks in a year
  • Businesses with less than fifteen employees
  • Religious organizations
  • Private clubs

Even if a business or employer is exempt from ADA requirements, they are still subject to state and local laws, building codes, and other legislation protecting certain rights for people with disabilities. 

For example, a private theater could choose not to hire an usher who uses a wheelchair due to the physical restraints of their building space. However, local building codes might require the theater to provide ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps despite its status as a historic building. 

In that case, the theater would still have to create wheelchair-accessible accommodations for anyone who uses the building, not just potential employees. Once the theater is renovated up to ADA regulations, they would no longer be able to decline an applicant simply because they use a wheelchair.

Similarly, some federal and federally-funded organizations are exempt from the ADA. However, they still have to follow a different law called the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal and federal contractor workplaces to give equal employment opportunities to qualified people with disabilities.

To learn more about the Rehabilitation Act, see ADA Overview: What Is the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Rights of People with Disabilities During the Hiring Process

When we say the words “reasonable accommodations,” most people think of physical items, like wheelchair ramps or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. However, your rights start before you’re ever hired.

People with disabilities have the right to equal opportunity. In other words, people in the disability community deserve just as much of a chance to get a job as everyone else. However, many companies, job listings, hiring companies, and recruiting websites drop the ball when it comes to making the application process accessible, too.

How do most people find a job nowadays? You look up job listings online, fill out an application through a job board or company website, then wait for a call. Some job posting sites offer mini skills tests to help applicants stand out, so maybe you take a few of those to brush up on your skills. Or maybe a recruiter finds your resume on LinkedIn or another social networking site and gives you a call directly.

After that comes the phone interview… then the video interview… then the in-person interview… and depending on the scope of the job you’re interviewing for, that timeline can go on and on!

The use of technology in the modern hiring process makes it easier for workers to apply for jobs and for employers to screen potential hires. But is an almost-entirely-online application process truly accessible? 

Employers have the ability—and responsibility—to level the playing field for all potential employees. 

What disability accommodations should employers offer during the application process?

Hiring process disability accommodations sometimes require “out of the box” thinking. Many organizations, especially small businesses without enough time on their hands, think that the accessibility features on online job boards like Indeed or ZipRecruiter are enough to satisfy ADA requirements. 

However, these options don’t work for everyone. Someone who is blind may not be able to complete a work sample based on visuals, like parsing data in graphs. Neurodivergent people may struggle with video calls or in-person interviews, while someone who is Deaf may need teletypewriter (TTY) services to complete a phone interview.

Disability accommodations you can offer or request during the hiring process include:

  • Clear, straightforward instructions for how the interview process works and how to request accommodations.
  • Alternative application processes for people who can’t complete an application online or in-person.
  • Alternative interview options, like sending in a prerecorded video instead of a live interview, or jumping on a video call with someone who can’t come into the office.
  • Access to AAC options like TTY services or telephone relay services. 
  • Access to sign language interpreters or readers.
  • Any necessary materials (skills tests, writing samples, portfolios, etc.) in multiple accessible formats, like Braille, large print, audiotape, or video with audio description.
  • Extra time to complete skills tests or written tests. 
  • Public contact information for the person or department that handles accommodation requests. 
  • Accessible locations for interviews or testing. 

What does “qualified” mean in relation to hiring people with disabilities? 

The exception to these guidelines comes if an employer needs to test certain skills required in the job. Under the ADA and other legislation, employers cannot reject qualified candidates because of their disability.

In this context, “qualified” means that the person has the experience, knowledge, and ability to complete every aspect of the job. Employers still need to find the best employee for their team. While an applicant cannot be rejected because of their disability, they can still be denied because their experience or application wasn’t strong enough.

For example, when hiring someone as a rail conductor, the business might test applicants for their knowledge of existing railroad signals. Someone who is blind would not qualify for this job because the conductor must be able to see those signals every day. 

On the other hand, say the same railroad company wanted to hire someone for their marketing department. The hiring manager could send applicants a screening test about current marketing trends, but could not disqualify an applicant with low vision because they were unable to take the written exam. Instead, the hiring manager would need to provide multiple testing formats—like a verbal exam or providing a vision aide—to give the blind applicant the same hiring opportunity as everyone else.

How do I file a complaint about disability discrimination in the hiring process?

Under the ADA, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can open discrimination investigations into individuals or companies based on complaints, tips, or public observation. If the investigation reveals discrimination, the EEOC can then file a lawsuit against the perpetrator or help the two parties reach a settlement. 

The EEOC’s website offers excellent resources for employers and workers alike. There, you can file discrimination complaints, find local EEOC offices, and learn about rights and responsibilities under the law for both employees and employers.   

If you found the job listing on a website like Indeed or ZipRecruiter, you should also report the company or listing to the site administrators. Most online application platforms offer easy complaint forms or online chat options to share your experience with a moderator. The platform can review your complaint and potentially take down the listing or bar the employer from posting new listings if they determine the employer has discriminated. 

If you believe you’ve been discriminated against in the hiring process, you can also speak to an employment attorney in your area.

Disclosing Disabilities to Employers: Your Right to Choose

Choosing whether to tell an employer about a disability is a personal choice. When making this decision, many workers with disabilities consider factors like medical care needs, the ease of accessing accommodations, and whether they want employers and coworkers to know about the disability.

Do I have to disclose my disability to a potential employer?

Job applicants are not legally required to disclose their disabilities to potential employers. Under the ADA’s anti-discrimination regulations, employers can ask about disabilities in certain contexts, but they cannot require applicants disclose their disabilities as part of the application process.

Most companies offer a form called the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form as part of their online or paper applications. On this form, applicants have the option to share:

  • Whether they have a disability
  • Whether they have had a disability in the past
  • The nature of their disability or disabilities

However, there is no legal requirement to complete this form. 

If I become disabled while working, do I need to disclose my disability?

No. Like we said, disability disclosure is completely elective, meaning it’s up to you whether you want to approach your employer if you’re diagnosed with a new disability. This applies no matter what your disability is or when you become disabled. 

However, if your disability is a result of your work environment, like an injury or an illness caused by unsafe working conditions, it’s important to document your symptoms, medical care, and accommodations process. 

You may be eligible for workers’ compensation, a type of insurance that provides wage replacement, medical care, and other benefits to employees who are injured or contract an illness due to their work. (We cover workers’ comp in more detail later in this guide.)

Keep careful documentation of your disability and your employer’s response to any accommodation requests you might make as a result. An employment attorney or workers’ comp lawyer near you can help you navigate the complicated process of obtaining workers’ compensation.

What are the pros and cons of telling my employer I have a disability?

If employees choose to disclose a disability, some people worry:

  • They’ll be treated differently by supervisors and coworkers.
  • They’ll be demoted, get fired, or have job responsibilities taken away.
  • Their medical information might be shared without their permission, whether accidentally or intentionally. 

Remember, all of the above are illegal under the ADA. If something like this happens to you, you may be able to file a complaint with the EEOC or, in some cases, file a discrimination lawsuit against your employer.

On the flip side, there are many positives to disclosing your disability status to your employer.

Sharing your disability status with your employer can:

  • Make it easier to obtain workplace accommodations.
  • Form a deeper understanding of your work style and performance.
  • Help you and your employer create a coaching program or new task management system that accounts for your disability needs.
  • Help your employer earn tax breaks or subsidies from the government. (A great perk to mention when asking for accommodations!)

Disability Rights in Your Career

Once employment officially starts, employees with disabilities have the same right to fair wages, benefits, and career advancement opportunities as team members without disabilities. This includes healthcare benefits, retirement funds, employee wellness programs, and any other perks offered by the company.

Many companies use attractive benefits packages as bargaining chips during the hiring process, so it’s important that a new employee with a disability can access the services they were promised.

Beyond benefits, the ADA also protects the disability community’s access to raises, promotions, travel opportunities, continued education, and other options the company offers to employees without disabilities.

What rights are protected for someone with disabilities trying to advance their career?

Under the ADA, workers with disabilities must have equal access to:

  • A safe workplace.
  • Reasonable accommodations. To learn more about requesting and negotiating for accommodations, see our Employer and Employee guides to workplace accommodations.
  • The use of AAC devices.
  • Holiday pay, overtime, and sick or vacation time offered to other employees. 
  • Career advancement opportunities like raises and promotions. 
  • Competitive wages, also known as “equal pay for equal work.” 
  • Travel opportunities (and accessible travel options and hotel rooms if the company pays for other employees’ rooms and travel).
  • Professional growth opportunities, like continuing education courses and certification exams, so long as these benefits are offered to other employees. 

As an employee, what do I do if my employer denies my accommodation request?

If your request for reasonable accommodations has been denied by your employer, there are steps you can take to make sure your protected rights are still being honored.

You can dispute your employer’s decision by:

  • Requesting an explanation (in writing) for why your request was denied.
  • Scheduling a consultation with an employment lawyer to understand your rights. 
  • Filing a claim or dispute with your state’s labor board or the EEOC.
  • When all else fails, filing a disability discrimination lawsuit against your employer.

To learn more about employee rights and accommodation negotiations under the ADA, see Employee Guide: How to Ask for Workplace Disability Accommodations.

As an employer, what do I do if an accommodation request is impossible to fulfill?

Employers have protections under the ADA, too. If an applicant or employee requests an accommodation that is impossible to fulfill, the employer may be able to refuse. However, this only qualifies when the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” on the employer, like prohibitively high costs, significant difficulty, or fundamental business changes.

If a team member requests accommodations you can’t provide without damaging your business, there are ways to deny the request without breaking the law. The most important thing to do in this case is keep careful documentation.

If the disagreement escalates, you may benefit from working with an employment lawyer or a mediator from the EEOC. Both professionals can help employers and employees reach fair solutions for accommodation disputes.

To learn more about employer rights and accommodation negotiations under the ADA, see Employer Guide: How to Offer Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities.

If I become disabled because of something that happened at work, what are my options?

Two federal laws offer medical and disability-related protection for people who are injured, disabled, or become ill on the job: the ADA and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In addition, worker’s compensation policies, which are mandated at the state level, offer financial and medical assistance for people injured on the job.

Remember that the same ADA rights to reasonable accommodations apply no matter when you become disabled. You can ask for accommodations right away, but having an official diagnosis from your doctor may make the process easier.

What is workers’ compensation?

Workers’ compensation laws, which apply to nearly all employers in the United States, are a form of insurance that guarantees employees who are injured or disabled on the job receive financial help, medical care, and other benefits.

Coverage varies from state to state and from job to job. Some workplaces offer 100% of an employee’s salary in workers’ compensation, while others only offer partial payment. Paid leave, medical benefits, and other compensation options depend on the employer’s policies and are subject to state and local law.

Other employers, like federal government organizations, must follow workers’ compensation laws at the federal level. Otherwise, workers’ comp policies are left up to each state’s individual workers’ comp agency. 

To learn more about workers’ comp, visit the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) website.

What is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

The FMLA offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to workers facing a serious health condition or taking care of an immediate family member’s health. The goal here is to protect the worker’s job and healthcare. 

While someone is on FMLA leave, their health insurance benefits remain active, and when they return from leave, they must be restored to their old job or a role with a similar level of employment in the company.

For example, let’s say a digital marketing manager had to take FMLA leave to take care of a disabled family member. While they were gone, the company hired someone to take over their duties. When the employee comes back to work, their old position is gone, but the company still has the responsibility to place them in a similar role. So, the digital marketing manager might become a communications manager instead, with the same salary and benefits as their old position.

Disability Rights When Terminating Employment 

There comes a point in everyone’s career when it’s time to move on. Whether you’re an employee starting a new job or an employer struggling with a team member’s performance, you have the right to terminate employment without retaliation or discrimination.

For employees, contract disputes may arise based on things like paying out unused vacation time, the end of medical or retirement benefits, or other complex factors of changing jobs. Employees also have the right to fair dismissal. Don’t forget: Being fired simply because of disability is discrimination. 

Employers also still have the right to lay off or fire an employee who just isn’t working out, so long as there is documentation supporting the decision.  

At-will employment

You might be thinking, “My state has at-will employment laws. Can an employer use at-will status to fire me because I have a disability?” 

At-will employment, also called “hired at will” or “employment at will,” is an agreement between workers and employers that either party may end the employment agreement without justification or advanced notice. 

While at-will employment offers less job security compared to other employment law, at-will offers both employers and employees a way to get out of an incompatible contract without undue conflict.

However, employers cannot use “at will” employment status to fire someone based on disability, race, gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation. An employer needs documentation in place to support their termination decision if the person who lost their job files a discrimination complaint. 

For more information, see Employer Guide: How to Offer Workplace Accommodations for Employees with Disabilities.

I got fired because of my disability. What do I do?

The best step to take is to hire an employment lawyer who specializes in wrongful termination due to disability. An employment lawyer can help you file a dispute with the EEOC and navigate any subsequent investigations. In the most severe cases, they can also file a lawsuit against the employer or work with the EEOC to help you reach a settlement.

Organizations like the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offer free resources for disability discrimination disputes. They also offer live chat services and referrals to employment lawyers and other legal services. 

If you are part of a union, union leadership can help you fight wrongful termination. Other workers’ rights organizations like the International Labour Organization (ILO) offer resources and referrals for workplace violations.  

Additional Resources

For more information about workplace rights, accommodations, AAC use, and more, see: 

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the official ADA.gov website

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers resources for workers, employers, and others related to discrimination in the workplace.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers guidance on workers’ rights and other employment considerations. 

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