How to Advocate for Disability Rights on the Job

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 02, 2022

Everyone should be offered equal opportunities in employment. Federal and state laws protect the rights of disabled applicants searching for jobs and employees in the workplace. Still, while these laws legally bind employers, you need to understand your own rights well to know if there is disability discrimination happening. Read on to learn more about disability rights on the job and how you can promote employment advocacy.

What Is Disability Discrimination in the Workplace?

Discrimination in the workplace can be based on disability, race, religion, sex, national origin, and genetic information. Discrimination may affect all aspects of employment — hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, and any other condition of employment. 

An employer is specifically engaging in disability discrimination when they treat an employee or applicant harmfully in any aspect of employment because of a disability. Disability discrimination may include accommodation denial, harassment, retaliation, or treatment differences. 

Some disability discrimination examples include:

  • An employee who is blind being denied accommodating technology to help them do their job
  • An applicant being rejected because of their need to visit their doctor frequently for health reasons
  • A person with a disability being teased or ridiculed because of their disability

What Are Your Employee Disability Rights?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal nondiscrimination employment laws that protect individuals with disabilities. The two main federal laws are the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The ADA covers private employers with 15 or more employees, in addition to state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor organizations. Title I of the ADA prohibits employers "from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment". 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, meanwhile, prohibits discrimination in employment in three areas:

  • Section 501 requires federal agencies to take affirmative action in the hiring, placement, and advancement of individuals with disabilities. 
  • Section 503 requires contractors with government contracts above a certain monetary value to hire and advance qualified individuals with disabilities. 
  • Section 504 prohibits those who receive federal financial assistance from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities.

Other federal laws and many state laws provide additional protection for workers with disabilities:

  • The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) protects workers with disabilities in organizations or entities that receive Federal financial assistance. 
  • The Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA) protects veterans with disabilities by prohibiting employers from discriminating against veterans. 
  • Individuals may receive further protection due to their state’s anti-discrimination laws, which may be more stringent than federal laws.

What Can You Do If You Encounter Employment Discrimination?

Although federal and state laws protect workers with disabilities on the job, you may still encounter disability discrimination in any aspect of employment. 

Here are some actions you can take if you are discriminated against on the job:

Talk to your employer. Depending on your workplace and comfort level, you may choose to speak with your employer’s human resources or your direct supervisor about the problem. That may be enough to resolve the issue without a formal complaint. It helps to keep thorough and organized records of your experiences so you can refer to them when speaking with your employer. Keep in mind that if you still choose to file a formal complaint afterward, there is a strict timeline establishing when those records need to be submitted.

File a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or your state office. Individuals who want to file a federal lawsuit regarding employment discrimination must first go through the EEOC’s complaint process. To file a charge, you must do so within a specific timeframe, typically within 180 days for non-federal employees. Some states may allow for 300 days. If the discrimination is ongoing, the most recent date the discrimination occurred would determine the deadline.

When you file a charge, make sure your narrative is clear, concise, and objective. Include any supporting documentation you have with your filing. You don’t need to retain an attorney to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC, but doing so can help you formulate a better complaint. You can check the status of your complaint on the EEOC’s website and amend it at any time. 

File a charge of discrimination as a federal employee. The filing process for federal employees and applicants is a little different. You only have 45 days from the date the discrimination occurs to file a charge of discrimination. Instead of filing with the EEOC or the state, you must contact your agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) program. 

The EEO may offer counseling, mediation, or an alternative dispute resolution program to resolve the problem. If these are unsuccessful, you can still file a formal discrimination complaint, but you must do within 15 days of receiving filing instructions.

Self-Advocacy for Adults With Disabilities

Know your rights. During the application process, an employer may not ask about your disability or require you to participate in a medical examination before offering you a job. The employer cannot withdraw a job offer because of your disability unless they can prove that the disability prevents you from performing essential functions, even with accommodations. The primary purpose of a position and its job duties are considered essential functions.

Ask for what you need. Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are “changes that assist a person with disabilities with applying for, performing the duties of, or participating in the benefits and privileges of a job.” Let your employer know if you need assistive technology or a modified work schedule. By providing suggestions, you advocate for yourself and let employers better understand how they can help. 

Pitch your strengths. Individuals with disabilities still have many qualities that managers want. By overcoming adversity due to disability, you’ve likely learned to be resilient, adaptable, and empathetic to others’ problems. You also have to be creative problem solvers in a world that isn’t always made to tailor to your needs.

Engage in an interactive dialogue. Under EEOC guidance, employers and employees must engage in interactive dialogue, honoring requests for reasonable accommodations. Refusing to participate in this process could damage any claim or defense due to a charge filed. 

Build a support community. Connect and exchange ideas with others going through similar experiences. By hearing other people’s stories, you can learn what has worked for them regarding employment advocacy and what you can use for yourself. Many organizations also have an ADA coordinator or a workplace advocate whose goal is to address disability discrimination in the workplace. Building a support network can help you deal with the emotional hard times and strengthen your legal stance when you are advocating for disability rights.

Show Sources

ADA: “Employment (Title I).”
EEOC: “Overview.”
National Federation of the Blind: “Self-Advocacy in Employment Toolkit.”
U.S. Department of Labor: “Employment Rights: Who has Them and Who Enforces Them.”
UVAHealth: “Disability Discrimination in the Workplace: What You Need to Know About Self-Advocacy.”

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