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Understanding the Rights of People With Disabilities: What You Need to Know

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Read Time: 10 min

It’s Disability Awareness Day in the U.K. today, and we’re going to mark the day by looking at what business owners, managers and employees need to know about the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace.

One billion people around the world experience some form of disability, according to the World Bank. That’s roughly one in every seven people. And although many of these disabilities don’t affect people’s ability to do a good job, discrimination and prejudice in the job market present significant barriers to employment.

To help combat this, the United Nations and governments around the world have passed legislation to protect the rights of people with disabilities and to help them access the jobs they deserve. The anniversary of the U.S. version of that legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, is coming up on 26 July.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn more about disabled people in the workforce and the employment rights of people with disabilities. You’ll learn how to support disabled employees in your company, and we’ll also look at some useful resources for people with disabilities to find work.

1. Disabled People in the Workforce

There are significant benefits for your organisation in hiring disabled workers. 

It’s a way of finding talented workers from an often-overlooked talent pool, while hiring workers who are rated consistently highly in employer surveys. It can help you relate better to your diverse customer base, which will certainly include disabled people. And there are things like tax credits and other benefits to take advantage of in many countries. Learn more in this article:

Nevertheless, many employers miss out on hiring talented candidates because they can’t see past their disabilities. As a United Nations fact sheet puts it:

“Myths abound, including that persons with disabilities are unable to work and that accommodating a person with a disability in the workplace is expensive. Contrary to these notions, many companies have found that persons with disabilities are more than capable.”

In the UK, one in three disabled people feel there’s a lot of disability prejudice, according to the disability equality charity Scope. And one in three people see disabled people as being “less productive” than non-disabled people.

As a result of these misconceptions, unemployment is often much higher among disabled people—in the U.S., for example, only 30% of disabled people of working age are employed, compared with 73% for people of working age without disabilities. That number is improving, but there’s still a very long way to go.

Although discrimination is a major problem, it’s not the only barrier that disabled workers face. Employers are often unwilling to make workplace adjustments or simply don’t know how to do so, as Liz Sayce, Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK, told The Guardian. And yet, according to a survey cited in the same UN fact sheet, the average cost of adaptation to accommodate employees with disabilities was just $500 or less, and many disabled workers didn’t need special facilities at all.

2. The Employment Rights of People With Disabilities

So, what are the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace? What do employers need to know? It varies depending on where in the world you are, of course, so let’s look at a few important pieces of legislation:

Rights Under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities

Most people in the world are covered by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 13th December 2006. The convention has the following aim:

“to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

Most countries around the world share these goals, and 179 of them have now ratified this convention, with just a few exceptions, such as Somalia, Bhutan, and the United States.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratification mapUN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratification mapUN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratification map
Most countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Source: United Nations

If you’re covered by this convention, here are some of the employment rights that people with disabilities enjoy in your country:

  • prohibition of job discrimination on the basis of disability
  • equal opportunities and equal remuneration for work of equal value
  • protection from harassment and the redress of grievances
  • access to placement services and vocational training
  • assistance in finding work and returning to employment
  • provision of reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities in the workplace

How each country interprets those rights varies widely, of course, but the convention does establish an important globally agreed baseline for the rights of disabled people. Now let’s look at a couple of individual examples.

Rights Under the Americans With Disabilities Act

Although the United States isn't part of the UN convention, it does have its own national legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which: 

“prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.”

What that means for companies is that if your organizations has 15 or more employees, you must “provide qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from the full range of employment-related opportunities available to others.”

Areas in which discrimination is prohibited include:

  • recruitment
  • promotions
  • training
  • pay
  • social activities

Employers must also make reasonable accommodation for workers with disabilities, such as modifying equipment, providing accessible versions of training materials and policies, allowing modified work schedules, and more. For more detail on what exactly “reasonable accommodation” means in practice, see this document from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Workers who believe they haven't been treated fairly have the right to file complaints with the EEOC. 

Rights Under the U.K. Equality Act 2010

Let’s look at one more national example, this time from the U.K. 

What is the Equality Act 2010? Essentially, it’s a comprehensive piece of legislation passed in the U.K. in 2010 that guarantees the rights of people with disabilities. It’s a good example of how the UN Convention we looked at before can be applied on a national level.

Here are some key provisions of the Equality Act 2010, specifically related to employment:

  • As in the U.S., employers have to make “reasonable adjustments” to avoid putting disabled workers at a disadvantage compared to other workers.
  • There are restrictions on how much employers can ask about disabilities in the hiring process.
  • You can’t be chosen for redundancy or forced to retire because of a disability.
  • Discrimination is banned in things like job offers, pay, employment terms, promotion, and training opportunities.

More details are available on the U.K. government website.

3. How to Support Employees With Disabilities

If you’re an employer who wants advice on how to accommodate employees with disabilities, check out the Job Accommodation Network.

Job Accommodation NetworkJob Accommodation NetworkJob Accommodation Network
Find out how to support employees with disabilities at the Job Accommodation Network

The site is aimed at U.S. employers, but it provides a wide range of useful resources that anyone can use. If you’re based in the U.S. and have specific questions about how to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can call the Job Accommodation Network for advice on 1-800-526-7234 (voice) or 1-877-781-9403 (TTY).

You can also find lots of useful advice in our tutorial on hiring workers with disabilities, which also covers changes you can make to your recruitment process and to your workplace policies to create an inclusive environment for people with disabilities.

4. Job-Hunting Resources for Disabled Workers

Having a disability doesn’t have to prevent people from pursuing their chosen career. Take John Hockenberry as an example. After being paralysed in a car accident in 1976, he went on to enjoy a very long and successful career in journalism, working as a reporter and news presenter for NPR, ABC News, MSNBC, and others. 

As a war reporter, he covered the Gulf War, the civil war in Somalia, and the Kosovo War. His memoir, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence, covered these events.

As he said in an interview with The Stranger:

“I think everybody is annoyed by the obstacles they encounter. But I think that disability allows you to be the author of your entire physical space, in a way that people who are normal don’t really have the opportunity to do. A lot of times the pity is a slap in the face. I am so proud of where I am right now. How can you possibly pity me? Are you out of your mind?”

Despite the success stories, though, there are still plenty of barriers for disabled people in the job market. Here are some useful resources to help redress the balance.

Government Resources

Governments often have good information for people with disabilities who are looking for work, and often there are specific programs aimed at combating the harmful effects of discrimination and prejudice.

In the U.S., for example, the Department of Labor offers a range of useful links on finding work both within the federal government and beyond. President Obama issued an Executive Order in 2010 that directs the federal government to improve its efforts to employ workers with disabilities through increased recruitment, hiring, and retention.

Local governments also have specific advice, such as this page maintained by the State of California.

Disability Rights Organisations

Every disability is different, and so are the challenge in finding employment. A great place to look for advice and practical is at an organisation that works with a specific disability.

For example, the National Down Syndrome Society runs the #DSWORKS Employment Program whose goal is:

“to encourage corporations and businesses to invest in hiring people with Down syndrome; and increase the number of opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome to work in meaningful and competitive employment settings.”

The program has a long list of success stories you can read. 

DSWORKS Success StoriesDSWORKS Success StoriesDSWORKS Success Stories
#DSWORKS Success Stories

Similarly, other organisations in different areas. Communication Services for the Deaf, for example, works “to create opportunities that allows each Deaf person to discover their gift that they bring to the world.” 

Other Useful Sites

There are plenty of other useful sites for disabled job seekers. Here are a few examples:

Or why not be your own boss? You can find a range of ideas on starting a business or working as a freelancer in these articles:

Support the Americans With Disabilities Act

As you’ve seen in this tutorial, disabled people often face discrimination and barriers to employment, but they've got important contributions to make, and there are advantages to employers in making themselves open to hiring workers with disabilities.

If you’re in the U.S., why not mark the upcoming anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by learning more about the act and committing to upholding its vision? 

You can sign the ADA Pledge to recommit to fulfilling the goals of the ADA, or simply learn more about it. And if you’re based elsewhere, find your local version of the legislation, or learn about the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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