Disabilities in the Workplace: Know Your Employee Rights

For hundreds of years, individuals with disabilities have been on the fringes of mainstream society. Economically disadvantaged and socially excluded, they are often regarded as being less capable than others. While many of us know that they are not disabled but “differently abled,” unfortunately, we see this bias upheld today. The proof lies in unemployment rates.

As of February 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is 12.6 percent. This is the highest number in seven years, up 5.3 percentage points from the previous year. While unemployment skyrocketed for all individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rates of joblessness for people with disabilities continue to be much higher than for those without.

What is the culprit in this disproportionately high unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities? The answer is disability discrimination.

Disability discrimination is when an employer or other entity covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act treats an individual unfairly because he or she has a disability, or because he or she has exhibited a disability in a prior episode.

Examples of Disability Discrimination
  • Harassment that results in a hostile or offensive work environment
  • Refusal to grant reasonable accommodations if doing so would not significantly impact the employer
  • Firing or denial of promotions and/or fringe benefits based on the basis of the employee having a disability

John Kelnhofer, a Functional Eligibility Specialist at Lakeland Care located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, states that people with disabilities in the workplace bring the same diverse characteristics to a job as anyone else. “We all have a variety of abilities and disabilities if you really think about it,” says John. “If given a chance, I think most people will remain loyal and hard-working to show gratitude.”

Read more to learn about rights for employees with disabilities in the workplace.

Know Your Rights

Knowledge is power. When applying for jobs, and even if you are already gainfully employed, learning your employee rights is one of the best things you can do for yourself. You’ll be met with good news, too, because—as you’re about to find out—the law is in your favor.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law passed in 1990 and amended in 2008 that ensures employers cannot discriminate against employees based on disability status, and further, that employers must implement reasonable accommodations if doing so does not cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer.

Under the ADA, employers are also required to keep medical information confidential, and they are prohibited from asking questions regarding the existence, nature, and severity of a disability. They may, however, ask about your ability to perform specific job functions.

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against job applicants/employees because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.

The EEOC provides leadership and guidance to federal agencies on all aspects of the federal government’s equal employment opportunity program. If a claim is filed for discrimination, it is their responsibility to investigate that claim, accurately assess the findings, and settle the charge.

Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) is a Wisconsin law that, like federal law, prohibits discrimination in all aspects of employment including hiring, firing, and terms and conditions of employment. This act protects job applicants and employees from harassment or unfair treatment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.

If you are a Wisconsin resident and believe you have been discriminated against in your workplace, you can request a discrimination complaint form at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Disclosing Disabilities in the Workplace

Under the ADA, people do not have to disclose their disabilities in the workplace unless they have an immediate need for reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation refers to an adjustment made for an individual with disabilities to accommodate or even the playing field based on a proven need. These modifications can be physical, such as a ramp leading into a building; in the form of assistive technology such as specific software; or policy changes such as allowing a service animal into the building where animals are otherwise prohibited.

It is your right to choose whether or not to disclose your disability in the workplace; however, a conversation regarding your disability could lead to a request for reasonable accommodations. While your employer/potential employer cannot ask questions regarding the existence, nature, or severity of your disability, they are entitled to ask for documentation detailing your disability to process your request. If you fail to provide this documentation, the employer has a right to deny your request. It’s important to note that, should you disclose your disability to your employer, the ADA binds the employer to confidentiality; they cannot discuss the details of your disability with anyone inside or outside the workplace.

Volunteer with Covey

Are you considering applying for a job but you’re unsure what you want to do? Volunteering is one of the best ways to get your feet wet before jumping into the workforce headfirst. When you volunteer, you have an opportunity to “try out” a variety of different industries and types of work environments.

At Covey, we are active volunteers in our community. From tidying up at our local thrift store to playing with pups at the animal shelter, we love to explore different passions. Through volunteering, individuals develop real-life skills, build confidence, and make connections in the community. Volunteer with us!

To learn more about career options that might be right for you, check out our article: Jobs for Adults with Disabilities.