Disability Rights in Employment

If at any point in your job or internship experiences you feel as though you are being discriminated against by your employer, remember that the law is on your side.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to help implement protections for individuals with disabilities. In 2008 the ADAA (Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act) was signed into law, broadening the definition of ‘disability’ and subsequently making it easier for individuals with disabilities to seek protection.

In the workplace, the ADA

  • Prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against qualified job applicants and employees with disabilities because of the individual’s disability
  • Requires that an employer make reasonable accommodations to ensure that the individual is able to perform the essential functions of their job

The ADA focuses on the requirement of the employer providing an accommodation rather than the employee proving their disability. Although it is important to note that the employee must have some documentation from a doctor, therapist, or other provider in order to receive an accommodation.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits federal contractors* from discriminating against individuals with disabilities, and requires affirmative action.

This law requires employers to show effort toward attaining a workforce that consists of at least 7% of individuals with disabilities in each job group or to the entire company if there are fewer than 100 employees. This means that employers must show progress towards this goal, but are not necessarily required to reach a quota.

*Nearly 25% of the American public works for a federal contractor, which is why you may see companies asking employees to self-identity at the job application stage. Disability disclosure at this stage is completely voluntary and confidential, and this data cannot be used for anything else (i.e. hiring or performance reviews).

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled 12 work weeks of leave in a 12-month period to care for a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of their job. Currently, 9 out of 50 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington) and the District of Columbia offer paid family medical leave.