What is Disability Discrimination? - Definition, Laws & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Disability Discrimination exists when employers treat a qualified individual unfavorably due to perceived, or historical, disability. Identify what is disability discrimination and the use of disability laws in the United States through examples of discrimination, and learn how charges may be filed. Updated: 10/13/2021

Disability Discrimination Defined

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC for short, disability discrimination occurs when an employer treats a qualified job applicant or employee unfavorably because of a disability, or a history of a disability, or because the applicant or employee is perceived to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting less than six months) and minor.

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  • 0:30 Disability Laws
  • 3:36 Examples of Discrimination
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Disability Laws

There are two primary federal laws that prevent disability discrimination in the workplace: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act applies to federal employees. According to the EEOC, the protections afforded to individuals under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are basically the same as those provided under the ADA. Since more people are covered under the ADA, we'll focus on it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the federal law that applies to private sector employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and unions. It prohibits discrimination against people who qualify for protection under the ADA regarding employment actions including hiring, firing, promotion, pay, training and 'other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.' If an employer employs 15 or more people, the employer is subject to the ADA.

You must meet the criteria of disability as outlined in the ADA to be protected by it. Just because you're disabled for purposes of short-term disability or social security doesn't necessarily mean you're disabled for the purposes of the ADA. A person is disabled under the ADA if the person has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities of life, has a record of such an impairment or is perceived as having such an impairment.

A qualified employee or applicant is someone with a disability who can perform the essential functions of the job either with or without a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is a change in a disabled person's work environment that enables him to perform the essential functions of his job or apply for a job. Examples of reasonable accommodations include making the workplace handicap accessible; modifying equipment, such as providing a larger computer monitor for a vision-impaired employee; or providing a large-print version of an employment test.

An employer is generally required to make a reasonable accommodation unless it will impose an undue hardship on the employer. According to the EEOC, an undue hardship 'is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer's size, financial resources and nature and structure of its operation.' More is probably expected from a Fortune 500 company than a local small business that employs the bare minimum to fall under the ADA. In any event, an employer is not required to adjust the level of quality or efficiency to make an accommodation. Moreover, an employer doesn't normally have to provide a reasonable accommodation unless a disabled person actually requests one.

Examples of Discrimination

Let's look at some examples of discrimination. We'll assume that the individual is disabled within the meaning of the ADA and that the employer is subject to it. An employer might:

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