Workplace Disability Discrimination Claims Are on the Rise

Data on workplace discrimination in 2016 has been released, and the numbers are grim. Across the board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that discrimination complaints rose yet again, and disability-based discrimination appears to be steadily increasing.

This is bad news for America’s disability community, which simply wants equal access to a fair, respectful workplace — just like everyone else.

A little over 30 percent of charges in 2016 involved cases of disability discrimination, despite the fact that disabled people only make up about 20 percent of the population and a very small percentage of the workforce.

Just 17.5 percent of disabled people were employed in 2015, the most recent year with available statistics. This low number occurs for a variety of reasons. Some can’t work or aren’t interested in working, while some must remain unemployed to retain benefits. And others very much want to work, but can’t find jobs.

Disabled people who are employed tend to be more likely to work in low-wage settings, especially temporary or part-time jobs that may not offer benefits or stability.

And this is where employment discrimination comes in — many disabled people report trouble getting interviews and being hired and fear their disability status may be a factor.

At work, people may be subjected to harassment, denials of accommodation, retaliation, refusal to grant promotions and other forms of discrimination. Employers and managers may have a variety of reasons for discriminating against disabled employees, including a belief that they aren’t as capable, doubts about their intelligence or the idea that hiring them is an act of charity or kindness, rather than a business decision.

Some disabled people may also face discrimination based on other aspects of who they are, and that makes things even more complicated. For example, disabled people of color are at increased risk of discrimination, especially if they’re women. Likewise, disabled LGBQT people can have trouble finding and retaining work. This may mean facing multiple forms of discrimination at the same time, making it difficult to untangle the origins of an employer’s discriminatory practices.

Of the 28,073 charges brought in 2016, the EEOC found evidence of discrimination in 5,680 and collected $131 million in penalties. The agency’s robust enforcement of workplace discrimination often relies on finding patterns and processing cases together. Thus, some legitimate cases of discrimination may have fallen through the cracks.

The rise in disability-related EEOC charges may be attributable to several different factors. It’s possible that workplace discrimination targeting disabled people is simply increasing, but that’s likely not the whole story.

Some people may feel more confident about identifying and reporting discrimination than they did in the past, believing that they’re more likely to be heard when they file complaints. It’s also possible that a small uptick in the disability employment rate could account for the increase in discrimination charges.

This data does show that workplaces clearly have room for progress in terms of identifying and reducing discrimination against disabled employees. For some, training to provide information about working with disabled people and the benefits they bring to the workplace — while also familiarizing managers with the law — may be helpful.

Adding disability to diversity and inclusion efforts both internally and externally may also help. After all, working from within to address potential sources of discrimination can make workplaces more disability-friendly.