If you have a disability, you probably face challenges on a regular basis. Disability discrimination should not be one of them. Discriminating against someone on the basis of her disability in the workplace is illegal. If it occurs, victims should address it with their employers immediately, and if the matter is not resolved according to their satisfaction, they may choose to sue.
What exactly is disability discrimination — and what actions can you take if you or someone you know has been a victim of it? Here’s what it means, examples of this behavior in the workplace and the steps to handle it.
Disability discrimination, explained
Disability discrimination involves treating workers differently because of their disability, disability history, perceived disability or association with someone else who has a disability. Victims of disability discrimination are treated unfavorably or placed at a disadvantage. According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, such behavior violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against job applicants and employees based on their disabilities, both mental and physical.
Examples of disability discrimination
Disability discrimination encompasses many behaviors and actions, and some people may not be aware of just what constitutes it. Here are three examples of disability discrimination in the workplace.
• Failing to provide reasonable accommodations
Employers must accommodate people with disabilities, provided it is financially and realistically feasible to do so. For instance, if an employee uses a wheelchair, an employer who doesn’t install a wheelchair ramp and has the resources and means to do so is engaging in disability discrimination.
• Harassing an employee because of her disability
An employee who is mocked because of a real or imagined disability is the victim of disability discrimination. For instance, other employees might make fun of a coworker’s verbal tics that are due to Tourette’s Syndrome.
• Firing or demoting an employee because of her disability
An employer may not fire an employee because of circumstances that result from her disability. It is also illegal to demote an employee because of her disability. This is true of all employment decisions, such as hiring or asking a job applicant about disabilities during the hiring process.
How to handle disability discrimination
So, if you or someone you know has been the victim of disability discrimination in the workplace, what should you do? Here are the steps to take.
1. Know your rights.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Discrimination encompasses (but is not limited to):
• Employment decisions such as hiring and firing (a disability must not be a factor)
• Providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities
• Harassment and treatment of employees
Review the laws concerning disability discrimination so you are aware of your entitlements and what constitutes this behavior. It’s important to understand your rights as an employee with a disability so you can assert them if need be.
2. Notify your employer of the violation.
If a violation has occurred, inform your employer (usually your manager or HR). They may not be aware of your disability, your rights or their legal responsibility in the matter. In that case, they may be willing to work with you to resolve the issue before you file a formal complaint.
3. File a complaint with your employer.
If you have notified your employer of the issue and they are unwilling to address the problem, you will need to file a formal complaint internally. This is a necessary step before taking legal action against your employer, and they may want to attempt to correct the problem to avoid a formal investigation and possible lawsuit.
4. File a claim of disability discrimination.
You’ll need to file a claim of disability discrimination with the EEOC or the agency that handles claims of discrimination in your state if your employer is unwilling to work with you to resolve the issue. This step enables you to ultimately sue for discrimination. You must file your claim within 300 days in states that have disability discrimination laws or 180 days in states that don’t. Once you file, the agency will investigate the matter, after which it will likely issue you a “right-to-sue” letter. You can request the letter before the investigation is complete. (This may occur whether or not the agency finds that discrimination has taken place.) Receiving this letter means you will able to sure your employer.
5. File a lawsuit.
If you do choose to sue your employer, hire an attorney (if you haven’t already) to represent you in court and advise you on your best course of action. She will offer an opinion on the winnability of your lawsuit. She will also handle the paperwork and ensure that you meet the legal requirements and deadlines.
When is it time to sue?
If disability discrimination has occurred within your workplace and you’ve performed all the necessary steps as outlined above, including filing an internal claim and a claim with the EEOC or your state agency, it may be time to sue your employer. This is a personal choice that you should consider carefully, weighing the pros and cons and taking into account your attorney’s opinion and evaluation of your likelihood of winning a lawsuit. It’s also important to inform anyone who might be affected by your decision, such as family members; just be careful about telling coworkers and other business contacts — there may be legal implications — and make sure to ask your lawyer before you do.
Outcomes of disability discrimination lawsuits vary due to the nature of the dispute and what has happened. If you were fired because of your disability and win a lawsuit against your former employer, you may be entitled to monetary damages such as legal fees, back pay, punitive damages and compensation for pain and suffering. According to NOLO, the maximum award for damages in this type of case is limited to $50,000-$300,000 by federal law. (The variation depends on the size of your employer.)