Disability Rights FAQ

What laws protect people with disabilities from discrimination?

Federal, New York State and New York City laws all protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace.

Who is considered "disabled" under disability discrimination laws?

Federal and local laws define “disability” differently. Federal law defines “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” a “major life activity.” A “major life activity” can include the ability to care for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. If someone has a condition that would “substantially limit” a major life activity, but doesn’t because of medication or other ameliorative measures, they are still considered “disabled” within the meaning of the law. 

New York City law and State law both have more expansive definitions of “disability.” If you believe you have been discriminated against or require an accommodation due to a condition, but are unsure of whether your condition qualifies as a disability, contact usto schedule a consultation.

Federal, New York State and New York City laws also protect people “regard as” or “perceived as” disabled. For example, an employee may have a condition which does not substantially limit any major life function, but that their employer erroneously believes does. The most common example might be a condition that is severely misunderstood by the general population as being more severe than they truly are.

Federal law also prohibits discrimination against people who are “associated” with someone with a disability. For example, people may have severe prejudices against people with certain mental impairments, and may discriminate against their relatives or friends. Some employers might terminate people who are related to or in a relationship with someone with HIV/AIDS, because the employer has misguided stereotypes about the kinds of people who contract such diseases.

What protections do these laws give people with disabilities?

Disability discrimination laws prohibit multiple kinds of discrimination, including, for example, the following:

  • Failing to provide a qualified employee with a reasonable accommodation or refusing to engage the employee in the interactive process (below);

  • Refusing to hire a qualified employee with disability who can perform the essential functions of the job;

  • Terminating or demoting a qualified employee due to a real or perceived disability or an association with a disabled person;

  • Failing to promote or demoting an qualified employee due to a real or perceived disability or an association with a disabled person;

  • Harassing an employee due to a real or perceived disability or an association with a disabled person.

For more information on discrimination generally, visit our Frequently Asked Questions about Discrimination or our Frequently Asked Questions about Harassment.

You mention “qualified employee” with a disability, what does that mean?

Disability discrimination laws generally protect people who can perform the essential functions of their job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. That means that not all people with all disabilities are entitled to accommodations for every job. It does mean that people who, with or without an accommodation, who can perform the essential functions of their job are entitled to any reasonable accommodations they need and are protected from being discriminatorily fired or not hired due to their disability.

What is a “reasonable accommodation?”

A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. 

Reasonable accommodations might include, for example:

  • making the workplace accessible for wheelchair users;

  • changing the employee’s work schedule to allow for medical appointments; 

  • eliminating a non-essential (or marginal) job function that the employee cannot perform because of a disability;

  • working from home; and

  • possibly re-assigning a long-time employee who has become disabled to a vacant job within the company that the employee can perform

A reasonable accommodation must be provided under the law unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer.

Keep in mind that which accommodations are “reasonable” in a given situation depends on the specific circumstances, which is why it is important for people to consult an attorney if they feel they have been denied an accommodation they believe is reasonable.

Do I have to request the reasonable accommodation in order to be protected?

Yes, generally the employee must request the reasonable accommodation. Sometimes, when it is clear that an employee has a disability and is struggling in the job due to the lack of a reasonable accommodation, the employer is expected to raise the possibility of a reasonable accommodation.

What happens after I request a reasonable accommodation from my employer?

Once a disabled employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer must engage in an “interactive process” with the employee, to explore the feasibility of the requested accommodation and whether other accommodations might be available that are more suitable for both parties.

More generally, the employer must work with the employee to determine his or her functional limitations due to the disability and how those limitations can best be overcome with a reasonable accommodation.

What do I do if my reasonable accommodation has been refused, or I’ve suffered other forms of disability?

You can contact an attorney experienced in disability discrimination law, like the attorneys at Beranbaum Menken LLP.  You can also take action on your own, without an attorney, by making an appointment with one of the following governmental agencies responsible for enforcing equal employment opportunity laws:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 800-669-4000 (federal law)

N.Y. State Division of Human Rights, 212-961-8650. New York state law, unlike federal law, protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status or status as a victim of domestic violence.

N.Y. City Commission on Human Rights, 212-306-7500. The NYC Human Rights Law, unlike federal and New York State law, protects employees from discrimination because of perceived age, partnership status, citizenship status, and unemployment status.

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How much time do I have to file a claim with a governmental agency or a court?

If the discrimination or retaliation occurred within the State of New York, you have 300 days from when you first learned of the discrimination to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. If you have suffered multiple acts of discrimination, or the discrimination has been on-going, you have 300 days from the most recent act of discrimination to file your charge.

You have one year (360 days) from the time you learned of the discrimination or retaliation to file a complaint with either the New York State Division of Human Rights of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. 

If you have not filed a complaint with either the NYS Division of Human Rights or the New York City Commission on Human Rights, you still have three years from the time you learn of the discrimination or retaliation to file a lawsuit alleging violations of state or city (but not federal) law with the New York Supreme Court (New York’s trial court).

What if I don’t file within these deadlines?

If you don’t file your complaint or lawsuit by the deadlines listed below, your legal action will be dismissed and you will have no further legal recourse. That is why it is so important to act promptly if you believe you have been discriminated or retaliated against.  

Beranbaum Menken LLP has a long history of advocating for victims of disability discrimination. If you believe you may have been the victim of disability discrimination or need help advocating for a reasonable accommodation, contact us to schedule a consultation.