A prevalent aspect of discrimination is that it can be invisible to the people who do not experience it. In cases where discrimination is not overt, it can be especially difficult to convince others of its existence. Non-direct discrimination, which can often be unintentional, consistently targets people with disabilities, as those without disabilities take for granted privileges and accessibility that do not actually exist for various classes of people. In an employment setting, employers must be especially diligent that their policies and practices are accessible to all, as many acts of discrimination against people with disabilities do not appear discriminatory at first glance. Without such diligence, employers can create the types of environments described below that unfairly target employees with disabilities.
As the pandemic has readily shown the world, and more importantly, what advocates have argued for years, employees do not need to follow a rigid, in-person schedule to be productive. Prior to the pandemic, it was nearly unheard of for employees with disabilities to be granted work from home status because “it was too expensive” or “too burdensome on the employer.” In reality, not every individual can be productive in an in-person setting or during the normal working hours. Providing flexibility to workers prevents discrimination against those whose disabilities interfere with what has too long been viewed as the “normal” and mandatory work schedule.
Explanations for use of vacation
It is one thing for employees to discuss with each other their plans for vacation, but when employers mandate that people provide a reason for their use of vacation, such lines of questioning can lead to an invasive setting where an employee seeking a simple mental health day now has to justify wanting a break from work. In cases where employees are making use of vacation time they have earned, supervisors should avoid demanding reasons for use of this time, as doing so unfairly targets those who need leave for their health and potentially prejudices employers against their employees.
Details for medical leave
Under the ADA, when an employee needs to take a medical leave, employers do have the right to gain some medical information about the employee seeking the leave. It is crucial that employers participate in the interactive process described by the ADA and refrain from pushing for more information than necessary to grant the leave. Seeking to know a burdensome amount of information about employees utilizing medical leave can traumatize employees whose health is in jeopardy. Some employers may also seek additional information simply for the purpose of retaliating against the employee taking the leave. Such action may dissuade employees from beginning the steps to take medical leave in the first place, which disproportionately targets employees with disabilities.
For able-bodied individuals, limitations for non-able-bodied individuals can frequently go unnoticed. In the workplace, it is crucial that a person with disabilities is able to access everything that a person without disabilities can access, so as to prohibit what can be unnoticeable discriminatory environments. For example, if an individual has restrictions for raising their arms, necessary equipment should not be stored out of reach or without an accessible ladder nearby. Or, for individuals in wheelchairs, their office conference rooms should be spaced to ensure that a wheelchair can roll up to the table and has equal visibility to the presenter’s screen. With effort and openness to their employees’ needs, employers can design work spaces that permit equal access for their employees.
Acknowledging employees’ mental health
When employees approach their employers with concerns about mental health, without second thought, some employers dismiss these concerns by saying, “yes, everyone is stressed right now,” or even, “if you think you’re stressed, you should see your boss.” Dismissing employees who describe their personal concerns is unfair to all employees, but especially to employees with disabilities who may be facing more than the eye can see. It is crucial that employers have a process in place that supports, rather than stigmatizes, employees who are open about their personal concerns.
Discrimination against employees with disabilities, even where it is unintentional, unfairly burdens and separates them from employees without disabilities. If you believe your employer has taken actions that discriminate against you because of your disability, please do not hesitate to reach out.