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Disability Discrimination at Work: What It Is and What You Can Do About It



If you believe that you were denied a job or a promotion at work simply because you have a mental or physical impairment, you may be the victim of disability discrimination. You owe it to yourself to learn more about your rights and the remedies available to you under federal and state laws. At the Law Office of Cohen & Jaffe, LLP, fair treatment of all people in the workplace, including those affected by disabilities, is always important to us. Contact us today if you or someone you love has experienced disability discrimination in the workplace.


The federal law that protects disabled individuals from workplace discrimination is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law applies to companies with 15 or more employees.

Several states have similar laws that provide equal or broader protection for disabled workers. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) is a good example. The law applies to companies with four or more employees as well as employment agencies and labor organizations.

As a disabled individual, you have certainly faced and overcome many challenges throughout your life. By taking advantage of the protections offered by these laws, you can overcome employment discrimination as well.

Here, we take closer look at how you can recognize disability discrimination in the workplace and the steps which you can take to address it.

It may ultimately be in your best interest to discuss your case with an employment discrimination lawyer who can guide you through the process.

Do You Have a Qualifying Disability?

The first step is to determine whether you have a “disability” as that term is defined by federal and state law. Then you can move on to the question of whether you were, in fact, discriminated against because of that disability.

Under the ADA, a person has a “disability” if the person:

A physical impairment could be any physiological condition such as cancer, cosmetic disfigurement or anatomical loss. A mental impairment could include an emotional or mental illness, organic brain syndrome or intellectual or learning disability.

The “major life activities” that may be “substantially limited” due to your condition could include general activities such as walking, sitting, seeing, hearing or performing manual tasks as well as bodily functions such as your respiratory system failing to perform as it should.

It is important to note that, in order to be protected from employment discrimination under the ADA, you must show that you, in fact, have the skills, education and experience to do a certain job with reasonable accommodations.

The definition of “disability” under state laws might be technically different from the ADA definition. Still, in practical terms, state laws typically offer protection to the same class of individuals.

What Is Disability Discrimination in the Workplace?

If you have a qualifying disability, the next step is to determine whether you were truly “discriminated” against on the basis of the disability. Employment actions that could be considered discriminatory include:

  • Refusing to hire you
  • Firing you or laying you off
  • Treating you differently than other employees in terms of salary, raises, promotions or benefits
  • Failing to provide reasonable accommodation for you.


Reasonable accommodations could include any number of modifications or adjustments such as:

  • Making bathrooms and break rooms readily accessible to you
  • Restructuring aspects of your job
  • Providing leave periods
  • Giving you access to a reserved parking space
  • Allowing you to bring a guide dog to work.

Of course, an employer may argue that making such accommodations would not reasonable but would rather impose an “undue hardship” on the company. It is important to look at what the accommodations would truly costs the company as well as how much it would actually disrupt the company’s operations. In some cases, an employer’s claims of “undue hardship” may be greatly exaggerated.   

What Can You Do About Disability Discrimination in the Workplace?

If you have reason to believe that you have been discriminated against at work on the basis of your disability, you may wish to, at first, discuss your concerns with your employer and request remedial action. Although you can raise the issue orally, you should do so in writing in order to establish a clear record.

If the employer ignores or rejects your concerns or requests, or if you are otherwise unsatisfied with the employer’s response, you can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with the state agency that works in tandem with the EEOC. For instance, in New York, that agency is the New York Division of Human Rights (DHR).

A charge is a sworn, written statement. You must identify the parties who have discriminated against you and describe the facts surrounding the discrimination.

Your employer will receive a copy of the charge and should conduct its own investigation. The EEOC or state agency will conduct an investigation as well.

If the EEOC or state agency determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that disability discrimination occurred, the agency will try to resolve the matter through a process called “conciliation” or “mediation.”