4 Laws that Protect Employees with Disabilities in the Workplace

Published November 29, 2021

The modern American workforce hasn’t always been a welcoming place for people with disabilities. For centuries, individuals were denied work solely because of their disability. Those who found work discovered their paths to advancement were blocked or their pay was significantly lower compared to their peers.

Over the past 50 years, American lawmakers have worked to protect candidates with disabilities who are qualified and eager to enter the workforce. These laws expand through federal agencies and into the private sector. They ensure fair hiring practices, reasonable accommodation, and opportunities for professional growth.

Learn about the key laws that protect job seekers with disabilities and how you can stay compliant within your organization.

Americans with Disabilities Act

One of the most well-known laws protecting individuals with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA guidelines require companies to provide equal hiring opportunities to candidates with disabilities. They cannot treat these candidates less favorably or discriminate against them on the basis of disability. The ADA also protects existing employees by ensuring fair pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement.

The ADA guidelines are lengthy; however, there are online resources for employers who want to make sure they are staying compliant in their hiring and management processes.

One of the key aspects of the ADA (along with discrimination prevention) is the use of reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are changes to the workplace to help employees with disabilities that don’t significantly burden employees or peers.

For example, an employee might use a screen reader to navigate the web or use a chair instead of standing for long hours during a shift. Neither of these tools will disrupt the workflow or cost much for the company.

The ADA also has provisions for employers. If an employer feels like the reasonable accommodation creates an undue hardship on the company, then they don’t have to agree to it. However, this is often taken on a case-by-case basis and the company needs to prove that there would be a significant impact on their operations if they met the accommodation request.

The ADA is the most frequently cited law to protect candidates with disabilities; however, there are others that can guide your hiring and training efforts.

Rehabilitation Act

Another key law that protects employees with disabilities from discrimination is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This was developed to replace and modernize the Vocational Rehabilitation Act and to extend necessary protections to job seekers. A few key provisions of this act include:

  • Section 501: federal employers cannot discriminate against qualified people with disabilities and they must take affirmative action to advance the employment of these candidates.
  • Section 503: employers who have contracts or subcontracts with the federal government exceeding $10,000 are also prohibited from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities.
  • Section 504: programs or activities that receive federal funding are also prohibited from discriminating against qualified candidates with disabilities.

These three provisions cover a large swath of organizations across the country. Along with protecting all federal employees, this law affects a significant portion of private companies that work with the government. These range from military suppliers to janitorial firms. Additionally, any entity that receives federal funding also has to follow the non-discrimination laws, which means this provision extends deep into the private sector.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was passed in 2014 and supersedes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. It was also passed to amend three existing acts:

  • The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act
  • The Wagner-Peyser Act
  • The Rehabilitation Act

WIOA was the first legislative reform of the public workforce system in 15 years and it passed with a significant bipartisan majority. The goal of this act is to help job seekers access the training and resources they need to become qualified candidates that can compete in the global economy.

WIOA challenged states to develop plans that modernized training services and resources for employees with disabilities. The law also called for transparency and accountability in the use of these programs. All federal investments in training programs for employees with disabilities must be evidence-based, data-driven, and accountable to participants and taxpayers. Essentially, this means that training efforts need to actually drive results, they can’t be symbolic or make false promises to participants.

Additionally, WIOA provides services to employers for work-based training. This allows employers to hire candidates with disabilities immediately and use training programs to help them learn on the job.

This law is meant to upskill people with disabilities and increase their qualifications. This increases their chances of getting hired and opens up opportunities to find work.

Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act

Also known as VEVRAA, the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act was originally passed in 1974 as a way to help returning veterans find work. Many soldiers returned from Vietnam with disabilities and discovered that employers were unwilling to hire them. This law requires employers that have federal contracts or subcontracts to provide equal employment opportunities for certain veterans with disabilities.

This act has been updated continually throughout the years. Its most recent adjustment was in September 2013. These adjustments are meant to clarify the terms of the law (for example, identifying what a “protected veteran” is) and provide detailed benchmarks for employers to follow.

While this is a Vietnam War-era law, it continues to apply today as Americans serve their country across the globe.

Individual State Laws

Federal laws are a good starting point to familiarize yourself with anti-discrimination legislation, but each state has its own guidelines to help people with disabilities. Many states use the federal mandates and then build additional requirements on top of them.

Take time to familiarize yourself with your local and state laws to see how they differ from federal guidelines. You may want to consult with a legal specialist who understands accessibility law and the steps employers need to take. These steps will allow you to proactively create a more welcoming workplace for any qualified individual who applies to work at your firm.

Learn More About Accessibility Laws

To learn more about state and federal laws, turn to our resources at Accessibility.com. We curate state disability laws so you can easily learn about employment in your area. You can also find additional information about federal laws, including videos explaining the ADA and in-depth discussions on what certain provisions mean for your organization. Our resources are here to help you.

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