Employees with disabilities are protected from discrimination and workplace harassment by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law that applies to employers with 15 or more employees. (Many states have their own laws that prohibit disability discrimination, and some of these laws apply to smaller employers.) The ADA prohibits workplace discrimination against employees with disabilities and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow qualified employees with disabilities to do their jobs.
Like other laws prohibiting discrimination, the ADA also prohibits workplace harassment: unwelcome conduct based on an employee’s physical or mental disability. Harassment might take the form of name-calling, cruel jokes, and mean comments, or it might escalate to threats and actions, from tampering with an employee’s equipment or workspace to physically intimidating an employee with a disability. Below, we explain what disability harassment is and what to do if you are facing workplace harassment.
What is the difference between disability harassment and disability discrimination?
Harassment is a form of disability discrimination. It occurs when coworkers, a supervisor, or even third parties (such as clients or vendors) subject an employee to unwelcome actions, comments, or conduct because of the employee’s disability.
Stray comments, mild teasing, or even an occasional joke about an employee’s disability are not necessarily illegal. When does this type of behavior cross the line to become harassment? Illegal harassment occurs either when putting up with unwelcome conduct is a condition of keeping your job or the conduct so severe or pervasive that it creates a “hostile work environment.”
Disability discrimination is separated into indirect and direct discrimination. An example of direct discrimination is a business refusing a person entry because they are blind and require assistance by a service dog. Indirect discrimination would be that same business not having an entrance ramp so that someone in a wheelchair is unable to access the building.
Does anything protect you from disability discrimination or disability harassment?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination based on disability. This act is widely cited in lawsuits against companies when buildings, sidewalks, and transportation aren’t made accessible. In fact, the successful lawsuit against the Taxi and Limousine Commission in New York led to the widespread introduction of accessible yellow taxicabs.
How can we make the workplace more inclusive?
Talk about it. If something feels wrong to you, talk to an HR manager or company counselor. Talk to your coworkers. And don’t be afraid to call someone out for being inappropriate. Employers, take measures to ensure your workplace is doing everything it can for your employees’ emotional and mental health. Get to know your coworkers with disabilities better and learn to be an advocate for their rights so work becomes a safe and enjoyable place to be.
If You Are Facing Disability Harassment
If you believe you are being harassed at work because of your disability, you should complain within your company, using the internal complaint procedures outlined in the employee handbook, if you have one. There are many reasons to file an internal complaint first. It informs your company about the problem, giving it a chance to investigate and resolve the issue. And, it will preserve your rights to hold your company responsible if the harassment continues.
Your employer must take prompt steps to end harassment, once it is aware of the problem. (The company is also legally liable for harassment by supervisors that results in a negative job action against you, whether or not you have complained.) By filing a complaint, you are making sure that your employer will be on the hook for any harassment that continues.
If you aren’t satisfied with your company’s response, or if the harassment doesn’t stop, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can assess the facts and help you decide whether it makes sense to start formal proceedings against your employer. If you decide to move forward, a lawyer can file a charge of discrimination against your employer with the EEOC or your state’s fair employment practices agency. These agencies can investigate, try to resolve the problem with your employer, and more. Filing a charge is also a required step before you can file a lawsuit for disability workplace harassment.