How to Handle Disability Discrimination in the Office
Plus, how to know when you should involve a lawyer.
No matter how old we are or how long we’ve been working, we all have questions when it comes to careers—from how to respond to a rejection letter to learning to say no when a role isn’t a good fit. That’s where Career Counselor comes in. In this weekly series, we connect with experts to answer all of your work-related questions. Because while we don’t all have the luxury of a career coach, we still deserve to grow in our careers.
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, disability rights still have a ways to go. Last year only 19.3% of people with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it doesn't help that nearly 20% (one million) of people with disabilities have lost their jobs since March due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In the ADA, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This can range from being diabetic to requiring a wheelchair to having cystic fibrosis to being in remission from cancer. And although though 61 million Americans currently live with a disability, according to the CDC, disability discrimination in the workplace is still alive and well with more than 24,238 discrimination cases filed in 2019 alone, per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
There are various ways an employer can discriminate, such as through hiring or terminating employees, preventing promotions or wage increases, lacking accommodations in the office, or even illegally using medical exams. But there are ways to advocate for yourself and others. Below we connected with a few experts to find out how you can handle disability discrimination in the workplace, whether it's affecting you or someone else.
HelloGiggles (HG): How can someone with a disability confidently go into a job interview?
“It is important that people with disabilities feel certain within themselves that they, with their skills, will be an asset to the company. Secondly, maintain a healthy perspective when confronting ableism. While it is reasonable to expect a level of downplaying and questioning of your abilities, don't allow those thoughts to seep into your psyche. People with disabilities have to refrain from idolizing people who are able-bodied and allowing the anticipated biases to intimidate them before and during the interview process.”
— Dayniah Manderson, Miss Wheelchair NY 1997. Middle school English teaching suing the NY DOA for reasonable accommodations.
HG: Should someone be immediately upfront with their employer about their disability?
“If you need an accommodation to perform well at work, then it is really important to let your employer know in confidence right away. Indeed, your employer needs to understand what you need so they can help you so that in turn, you can give them the best job performance possible. This is a win-win for you and the employer as your success leads to theirs and vice versa.
"Also, if you don't tell your company that you need disability accommodation, and then you fail at your job because you don't have the accommodation, the failure is on you. But if you let them know you have a need for an accommodation due to a disability and they don't provide it, it's on them.”
— Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility
HG: How can someone safely advocate for themselves at work?
"It is best to read up on ASKJan.org about what kinds of accommodations are 'standard' for the kind of disability issues that you have. Ask yourself, what solutions have worked for you in the past? What will help you do a great job in your role today and tomorrow? Then set up a private conversation with the head of HR. Let them know you have a disability and what disability job accommodation needs you to have as a result.
"Once you feel confident about your reasonable accommodations request, schedule a meeting with your manager to discuss which accommodations are needed. During the meeting, stay confident and stand up for your rights as a valuable asset to the workplace or you wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. A good manager will always look out for your best interest and your rights, as a person with a disability, are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)."
— Becky Kekula, Little People of America (LPA) employment chair and motivational speaker
HG: What should someone do if an employer doesn’t accommodate their needs?
“They may not understand the need, may have forgotten or gotten busy. Don't assume they are against you. Have another conversation with them about it. Be sure to document the conversation with a follow-up email. Keep records of all these interactions. If for some reason they discriminate against you, then you want a 'paper trail' to show that you notified them that you have asked for accommodation and that it has not been delivered.”
“Follow a chain of command in addressing your issue and try to communicate in writing from the onset, if possible. Be mindful of when supervisors are being dismissive of your concerns and are willing to go over your supervisor's head if he/she doesn't demonstrate competence or sensitivity in handling your issue. Be mindful that you might have to explain the importance of having a particular need met—sometimes able-bodied people just don't know or understand, so do not be overly assertive.”
“First become familiar with the ADA. Educate yourself on what is and what is not considered a reasonable accommodation request. If your employer has ignored your request for an accommodation, your first step should be to make sure you were clear with what you were requesting. Put your request in writing, addressed to your manager and the human resources department, and specifically mention the ADA.”
HG: When is the right time to hire a lawyer for discrimination?
“You should always try to work it out without a lawyer [first], as legal remedies—while they exist—can be expensive and slow. The honest truth is that right now, it is very hard to get a job, so people have every incentive to try to make things work to keep their jobs. But if you are fired due to disability discrimination then it's a good idea to get legal advice, even if you decide not to pursue a lawsuit.”