Disability discrimination is any unfavorable treatment of a qualified job candidate or worker due to a current or past disability or medical condition. This type of discrimination can include several kinds of problematic behavior.
- Harassment: This can involve ridiculing, name-calling, or mocking an employee or candidate because of their disability. For example, a coworker using ableist language towards a worker living with a disability is a form of harassment.
- Direct discrimination: This involves treating a disabled candidate or employee differently due to their disability. Not hiring someone or deciding to fire a worker because of their disability is a form of direct discrimination.
- Indirect discrimination: This can involve company policies that prevent people living with disability from being hired or from working effectively. An example of indirect discrimination may be a job ad stating that candidates are required to be able to lift 40 pounds, even though the job duties don’t usually require such tasks and even though dollies and other supports are available.
- Refusal to make reasonable accommodations: If management refuses to allow a neurodiverse worker to use noise-canceling headphones because company policy requires all workers to use a standard set of headphones, this would be an example of failure to make reasonable accommodations.
- Discrimination due to disability-related accommodations: An example of this type of discrimination might be a worker with a chronic condition not getting a bonus because of time taken off for necessary medical appointments.
- Victimization: Victimization is the poor treatment of employees who have made a complaint about discrimination. It can also refer to harassment of or mistreatment of workers who are supporting a coworker who has made such a complaint. If an employer threatens to demote a worker who has made a discrimination complaint unless they withdraw the complaint, this is victimization.
Discrimination can be ongoing or an occasional or one-time occurrence. Business leaders and HR do not need to be aware that they are being discriminatory to be held accountable. In fact, many companies may not be aware that they have an unconscious bias in the workplace or policies that adversely affect those living with a disability.
What Are Some of the Dangers of Disability Discrimination?
No organization wants to be thought of as unfair, an unpleasant place to work, or discriminatory. Disability discrimination in particular has serious consequences.
- It can make it harder to hire and retain great talent. Working-age adults living with disability face an unemployment rate 80-100% higher than their peers, meaning that many qualified candidates are being left unemployed when they could be making a contribution to businesses. If your workplace is discriminatory, it may be pushing great candidates away.
- It can hurt your productivity and innovation. In one study, 75% of workers living with disabilities reported coming up with ideas that could add value to their employer, while only 66% of employees who were not living with a disability reported the same thing. In another study of one food company, researchers discovered that 100% of workers who were living with a disability had average or above-average work performance, compared with 56% of non-disabled employees at the same company.
- It can impact your bottom line. Businesses that hired and retained employees living with disabilities experienced double the net income and 30% higher profit margins within four years of hiring a more diverse workforce.
- It can hurt your brand. About one in four Americans are living with at least one disability, and these individuals could be your customers, leads, potential hires, suppliers, vendors, partners, and investors. Disability discrimination can make your company seem uncaring about your community and the people they work with.
- It hurts your culture. About 10% of Americans live with a hidden disability, and even those who do not live with a disability may have a family member or friend who does. When these individuals see others harassed in the workplace or treated unfairly because of a medical condition, this can impact trust and respect for management and leadership or even the company as a whole.
- It’s against the law. Last but certainly not least, those who are discriminated against because of a medical condition or disability can pursue a civil claim. Discrimination is illegal in the United States and in many other countries.
What Does the Law Say About Disability Discrimination?
Companies need to know and be compliant with three laws in U.S. workplaces. These laws all prohibit discrimination in hiring, firing, and all parts of employment, but for different sectors of the working population.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): This law impacts all workers and all Americans, protecting them from discrimination at work and in public spaces.
- Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA): This law protects job applicants and workers at many federal government agencies.
- Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA): This law protects Vietnam veterans who live with a disability and are applying for work or are in the workforce.
Be sure to be familiar with how each law impacts your workplace to avoid serious consequences such as litigation.
How Can I Know If Disability Discrimination Is Happening at My Company?
Since only 39% of workers reveal in their workplace that they are living with a disability, it is possible for companies to discriminate against them without knowing it. Even if management thinks a company is non-discriminatory because they have no workers living with disability, this may not be true.
One survey found that 94% of employees have reported facing bullying between 2007 and 2018. And in 2017, the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) saw 1,889,631 discrimination complaints, 32% of which were due to disability. This would suggest that many workplaces struggle with discrimination, even if managers and leadership are not aware of the issue.
To determine whether discrimination has impacted your company, you may want to conduct anonymous surveys. You can use Conncteam surveys and polls, for example, to ask employees whether they need specific accommodation and whether they have seen or experienced discrimination based on disability in your workplace.
In addition, it is important to train your employees so they understand what discrimination is and know how to report it when it occurs. When workers know what to look for and know they can speak up, you may be alerted when discrimination takes place.
It is also important to regularly review your hiring and recruiting practices, the wording in your internal and public-facing communications, and your policies. Review your processes and operations, too, to determine whether these procedures may be indirectly discriminating against workers living with a disability.
How Can I Prevent Disability Discrimination in My Workplace?
If you have surveyed your team and found that some workers are living with an undisclosed disability or have reported seeing discrimination in the workplace, you will want to take the following steps. Even if you haven’t uncovered discrimination, these best practices can help protect your workers and prevent discrimination against future employees.
- Create quiet spaces. Offering a separate, quiet space or noise-canceling headphones can help neurodiverse employees but can also be beneficial to anyone who is living with chronic headaches or just needs quiet time for deep work. For the same reasons, offering dimmable lights can be useful.
- Make your workplace accessible. Consider worktables, doorways, and spaces that are easily accessible by people living with mobility issues and those who need wheelchairs. If possible, add braille to signs. If you have deskless workers in the field, make sure that your fleet of cars and trucks is accessible to drivers with mobility challenges. The data you gather from surveys can help you determine exactly what changes to make to create an accessible space for your specific team.
- Use tech to your advantage. Voice recognition, for example, can help those with visual impairments. You can also improve communication for everyone by using an app such as Connecteam, which allows you to communicate with your team in different ways. Neurodiverse employees may appreciate clear instructions and checklists on the app, while workers with visual or speech impairments can access and share information using their own mobile devices, which are usually set up with accessibility features for their needs.
- Offer flexible work arrangements, if you can. Workers living with a disability may benefit more by working from home at least some of the time since homes are usually set up to be accessible and comfortable.
- Create customized plans. Create an open-door policy, telling workers they can come to HR or a specific person on your team to get accommodation and support, so you can accommodate specific individuals and their needs rather than attempting to cover all possible bases. Making it easy for employees to put in anonymous requests, such as for better lighting, also helps target what’s needed most at your organization.
- Train your team on avoiding disability discrimination. Most people mean well, but may not always know what to say, may not be used to working with someone who lives with a disability, or may not realize that some seemingly innocuous words and assumptions can be hurtful. You can create training with Connecteam to help your team adopt best practices to create a more inclusive workplace. You can also offer training about ADA and other laws to help leadership and managers stay compliant.
- Offer mentorship. Mentorship opportunities can help those living with disability, not to mention all team members, get personalized professional development support so they can grow their careers.
- Review your policies, hiring strategy, and operations. Do any of your policies or processes prevent workers living with a disability from effectively doing their job? When you have an open position, is your job ad free of ableist language? Are you recruiting on job boards and through recruiters who prioritize diverse candidates, including those living with a disability? Examine every part of your organization to ensure you are not inadvertently introducing bias.
What Can I Do If I’ve Experienced Disability Discrimination?
If you’re a worker and feel you have been discriminated against because of your disability, the first thing to do is to gather evidence. Keep any emails you may have received which contain discriminatory wording and get statements from witnesses. Write down the details of any conversations you have had (including the date, place, and time of the discussion) where you feel discrimination occurred.
This evidence will help you as you move forward. You can choose to file a complaint with your HR department or to contact an attorney to file a civil claim.
Workers living with disabilities have talent, skills, and experience your company can benefit from. All too often, however, unconscious bias and outdated policies keep these workers from thriving in the workplace. Introducing a few best practices can make your organization more inclusive, more productive, and ready to welcome workers of all abilities.