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In the BLOG

Disability discrimination in the workplace

Both federal and state laws protect employees with disabilities.  If your employer is covered under one of these laws, and you can perform your duties, you shouldn’t have to worry about job security just because you have a disability.  Here’s an overview of your rights regarding disability discrimination in the workplace:

What does the law say about disability discrimination in the workplace?

Federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit covered employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities.  Here are some key terms to know:

  • Disability: Under the law, a disability is a medical condition (physical or mental) that substantially limits a person’s ability to perform major life activities (seeking, hearing, sleeping, walking, eating, caring for yourself, standing, lifting, bending, communicating, learning, concentrating, working, etc.)
  • Qualified individual with a disability: A person who can perform his or her essential job duties with or without reasonable accommodations
  • Reasonable accommodations: A reasonable accommodation is a change or modification that allows an employee to do his or her job. Depending on the disability, examples of accommodations may include a flexible schedule; modified duties; telework; a workstation that is close to a restroom; or aids such as speech-to-text software, a headset, or a chair with lumbar support.  An accommodation is reasonable if it doesn’t impose an “undue burden” on the employer.  Whether there is an undue burden depends on several factors, including the size and financial resources of the employer, and any impact on other employees.
  • Covered employers:
    • Private-sector employers with 15 or more employees
    • State and local government employers with 15 or more employees
    • All federal government employers

Additionally, many states and localities have laws that provide greater protection than federal law.  For example, the DC Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination by employers with as few as one employee.

Is disability discrimination illegal?

Generally, disability discrimination means treating someone differently just because he or she has a disability.  However, only certain types of disability discrimination in the workplace are illegal:

  • Adverse employment action: It is illegal for a covered employer to take an adverse action against a qualified individual with a disability, just because of that person’s disability. An adverse action is a significant change in employment status.  Generally, this involves a change in pay or position.  Common examples of adverse actions include non-selection for a position, firing, demotion, denial of promotion, and suspension.
  • Denial of reasonable accommodations: Covered employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  The employer is required to engage in an interactive process with the employee to figure out what accommodation the employee needs.
  • Hostile work environment: Hostile work environment is another term for harassment that does not result in an adverse employment action. Harassment is illegal under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act if it is based on the employee’s disability and either affected a term or condition of employment or had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the work environment.

What should I do if I’m being discriminated against?

Depending on your employer and work location, you may be able to file one or more of the following:

  • Internal complaint: If your employer has a grievance or complaint policy or procedure, you may be able to file an internal complaint with your employer. Federal employees, as well as some state and local government employees, must file a complaint with an EEO counselor before taking any other action. Click here for an overview of the EEO process for federal employees.
  • EEOC charge of discrimination: Private-sector employees must file an EEOC charge before they can file a lawsuit in federal court. Non-government employees should include certain information when filing against their non-government employers. State and local government employees may also file charges with the EEOC.  However, depending on which state or local government you work for, you may need to file an internal complaint with your employer first.
  • Complaint with a state or local agency: In addition to filing with the EEOC, you may file a complaint with a similar state or local government agency. For example, if you work in Washington, DC, you can file both an EEOC charge and a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR).  DC government employees must file an internal complaint before filing with OHR.
  • Lawsuit: Private-sector and state and local government employees may file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court after filing an EEOC charge. Federal government employees can file in federal court after filing an internal complaint with their federal agencies.  However, some states and localities allow employees to go directly to state court.  For example, if you work for a private-sector employer in DC, you can file a discrimination lawsuit in DC Superior Court without filing an OHR complaint.

What damages can I recover if I win my case?

Under federal law, you may seek both monetary and non-monetary damages.  For example, if you win, a court could award you the following:

  • Reinstatement to your job (if you were fired, demoted, or reassigned)
  • Lost wages and benefits
  • Compensatory damages for pain and suffering (max. of $300,000)
  • Attorney’s fees
  • Litigation costs

Additionally, you may ask for punitive damages if you work for a non-government employer.  However, courts only award punitive damages in extreme circumstances.

You may be able to recover different or additional damages under state law.  For example, if you prove that your employer violated the DC Human Rights Act, compensatory damages are not limited to $300,000.

Do I need an attorney for a disability discrimination case?

You can file an internal or administrative complaint or a lawsuit without hiring an attorney.  However, it may be beneficial to retain or consult with an experienced employment lawyer.  An attorney can assess your case and determine whether your employer violated your rights.  A lawyer can also advise you about aspects of litigation strategy, such as whether to file in state or federal court.

If your employer discriminated against you based on your disability, Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C., can help.  We represent federal government employees around the world, as well as private-sector and state and local government workers in Washington, DC, Maryland, and northern Virginia.  We handle all types of disability discrimination matters, including federal EEO cases, EEOC charges, state and local complaints, and federal and state lawsuits.


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