Federal and state law entitles disabled employees to protection from employment discrimination. Discrimination can come in various forms, including refusal to hire or promote, harassment and unequal pay.
Disabled workers may also face discrimination in the form of refusing to make reasonable accommodations, as mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Figuring out what is reasonable
The key to many disability discrimination claims is defining what accommodations would be reasonable (and therefore required) or would impose an undue hardship on the employer (and therefore not required).
Providing accommodations generally means making it possible for the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. An employer can accommodate by allowing a flexible schedule or telecommuting.
Employee must perform essential functions
Sometimes, it can make sense to assign nonessential tasks to a different employee. For example, an accountant with a physical disability may need someone else to assist with lifting or carrying files. Generally, the employer is not required to change the job completely; the accountant should still be able to reconcile statements, prepare tax returns and perform other major job duties.
Accommodations could also consist of providing an assistive device to enable job performance. Generally, if an employee requires an assistive device at all times, including outside of work, that is a personal device and an employer may not have to provide it.
For instance, someone who wears glasses all the time may not be entitled to have the employer purchase the glasses. On the other hand, someone who would need text-to-voice software to read documents in the course of work may have more solid grounds for asking the employer to install this software on a work computer.
Many employers try to argue undue hardship when asked to provide an accommodation. Broadly, this term means a serious financial burden or a severe disruption to the business's functioning. Whether a specific accommodation actually is a hardship depends greatly on the type and size of the business.