Legal protections from workplace disability discrimination

Frank S. Clowney III

Disability discrimination occurs when an employer treats a disabled individual who is either an employee or an applicant for employment unfavorably because of the employee or applicant’s disability. Because of the important employment law protections for disabled individuals, they should be familiar how the law defines disability and with what those protections are in the employment and hiring processes.

The legal definition of disability

An employee or applicant for employment is considered disabled, or will qualify as disabled,  if:

  • They have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity including walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning or operation of another major bodily function.
  • They have a history of disability such as, for example, cancer that is in remission.
  • They are believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory or minor. A physical or mental impairment that is considered transitory in nature is defined as lasting or expected to last six months or less.

Employers are prohibited from taking adverse employment action against a qualified disabled individual. An adverse employment action can include a variety of different activities such as firing, a demotion, cutting hours or refusing to promote. Discrimination against a qualified disabled individual is prohibited in any aspect of their employment including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, hours, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits or any other condition of employment.

Employers must also provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability unless providing such reasonable accommodation would cause an undue hardship to the employer. Undue hardship is defined as causing significant difficulty or expense for the employer. Disability discrimination can cause significant harm to disabled individuals and disabled applicants for employment which is why there are legal protections in place to protect them that they should be aware of.