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Disability Discrimination in the Workplace: What You Need to Know About Self-Advocacy

Man in wheelchair with coworker

Often, disability discrimination in the workplace happens because of a simple oversight. Just ask Rupa S. Valdez, PhD.

On her first day as an associate professor at UVA, Valdez couldn’t open the bathroom door. It was too heavy. Valdez lives with chronic conditions and she uses a wheelchair. For months, she had to ask coworkers for help every time she went to the restroom.

“It was mortifying,” says Valdez, who is part of UVA’s Disability Studies Initiative. This faculty group studies the social and cultural aspects of disability.

That door now has an automatic opener.

Many employers embrace the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But few include disability in their efforts. The result? Disability complaints abound.

In 2021, workers filed more than 22,000 complaints.

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So, What Does Disability Discrimination in the Workplace Look Like?

Here are some ways it could happen:

An employer might mean well. But creating inclusive spaces must be intentional. Otherwise, employee morale suffers. After all, anyone can find themselves in a wheelchair, using crutches, losing sight or hearing.

Should I Tell My Employer About My Disability?

You may fear telling an employer about your disability.

You might worry about:

The good news: You’re not required to disclose this information. But there could be an upside to sharing.

Doing so may “establish a trusting relationship from the beginning,” says Valdez. She advocates for people with disabilities and chronic conditions. In February, Valdez testified before a U.S. House subcommittee about healthcare inequality.

“You can get a sense of whether this is a place where you’ll get support. Will your experiences be an asset and a value, rather than a liability?”

5 Tips for Advocating for Yourself at Work

Take initiative. Ask for what you need. You may become happier in your job. And that may lead to greater success. Valdez shares five tips for self-advocacy at work.

Know Your Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you. It’s illegal for employers to show bias against qualified workers. This includes:

These resources can provide guidance:

Ask for What You Need

Employers must make adjustments for employees with disabilities to do their jobs.

Valdez, for example, can’t type because of her disability. The university hired an assistant who types for her.

“Know the types of accommodations you might need, and provide suggestions,” says Valdez, whose teaching and research focus on engineering in health care. “Your employer may be knowledgeable in one space and not in another. So, often you may need to educate your employer.”

Ask for supports that help you perform your best. In doing so, you can boost your value to the organization. This may include:

Find an Ally

Many organizations have an ADA coordinator or similar workplace advocate on-site. Reach out to them. Share your concerns. Their goal is to address disability discrimination in the workplace. They may:

They can also help you file a complaint, if needed.

Pitch Disability as a Strength

You may want to hide your limitations. But think about the assets you bring to the workplace. Employees with disabilities offer many qualities managers want. By overcoming adversity, you've learned to:

You can tout your resilience, adaptability, and empathy.

“It’s essential to present disability as an asset. Especially [when] everyone’s thinking about diversity and representation,” says Valdez. “A disabled employee’s lived experience can inform so much in the workplace.”

Build a Community of Support

There’s safety and comfort in numbers. Connect with others living with chronic conditions and disabilities. Exchange ideas about possible office adjustments. Build a network for support when times get tough.

“It’s important to hear stories from others with similar experiences,” says Valdez. “Learn what has worked for them. You’ll get a sense of what feels right for how, when, and if to disclose your disability. [That can help you] advocate for accommodations.”

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