Providing for People with Disability: A Major Public Health Issue

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Providing for People with Disability hand reading braille

While public health laws regulate the actions of employers to ensure equality, people with disabilities still face discrimination. As a result, legislators have enacted the Rehabilitation Act, formerly called the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act prohibits employers from treating an employee or job candidate unfairly due to a current or past disability. According to the Rehabilitation Act, employers must also make sufficient efforts to accommodate staff members that suffer from disabilities, unless doing so would create undue hardship for the employer.

Examining Discrimination Laws

The Rehabilitation Act also extends to the immediate family members of those with disabilities — even though an employee may not suffer from a condition, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee because they have a personal relationship with someone who has a disability. For example, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee who must care for family member that was paralyzed in an accident.

Workplace disability discrimination can take numerous forms. Examples include:

  • Assigning jobs
  • Establishing work agreements
  • Hiring
  • Issuing job perks
  • Issuing promotions
  • Laying off employees
  • Setting pay rates
  • Terminating employment

Harassment is another form of discrimination. It occurs when an employer or coworker makes offensive remarks about a person’s disability. This excludes teasing and non-threatening, isolated incidents, as well as and unintentional comments. In order to legally qualify as harassment, this behavior must occur frequently and severely enough to create a hostile work environment. The law also protects employees with disabilities from unfair actions committed by clients and patrons.

Barriers that Limit Disabled Individuals

Many times, disabled employees must contend with several barriers simultaneously. Barriers include more than physical obstacles. In fact, the legal definition of a barrier as it pertains to disability, encompasses any present or missing environmental factor that limits the functioning of a disabled individual. This might include inaccessible work areas or absent accessibility technologies. A corporate culture of negative attitudes toward the disabled also constitutes a barrier. Finally, official policies and procedures that are nonexistent or hinder the performance of employees with disabilities fall under the purview of the Rehabilitation Act.

Disabled employees who use medical devices to communicate may experience communication barriers. These kinds of barriers may include:

  • Absent audio literature interpretations
  • Absent Braille literature
  • Absent large print literature
  • Lack of access to sign language interpreters
  • Video content that lacks closed captioning

Other barriers might include physical structures that prohibit mobility for disabled employees such as doorway curbs or sidewalks without accessible ramps.

Employees with disabilities might suffer from discrimination due to organizational policies. For instance, it is now illegal to exclude disabled employees from participating in federally-funded initiatives. Employers cannot exclude workers from participating in company benefits, programs or services because a facility lacks sufficient accessibility. Additionally, employers must make sufficient accommodations so that employees with disabilities can perform their intended work duties.

Employers must eliminate programmatic barriers for employees with disabilities such as inconvenient work hours and organizational policies that do not allow for sufficient care provider visits. Sometimes, barriers may develop because an employer simply avoids communication with employees who have disabilities.

Social barriers represent another form of discrimination against the disabled that can decrease individual performance and quality of life. Many employers will not hire disabled workers. As an added barrier, many disabled adults over 25 are unlikely to complete academic training.

A Closer Look at Disability Laws

Government agencies, international groups, and national information networks might subscribe to many varying definitions regarding what constitutes being disabled. The United States government alone offers 67 varying definitions of what it means to be disabled. Certain services such as Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income conform to strict definitions for disability. Laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, conform to broad definitions to ensure the protection of all disabled individuals.

Another law that defines disability is the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1974 that mandates free and appropriate education for all children with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the disabled from discrimination so that they can lead self-sufficient lives. In 1990, legislators established the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure equality for disabled individuals. This law protected the disabled from barriers that inhibit the ability to lead a full and satisfying life.

Future public health professionals who provide services for disabled Americans will experience opportunities to improve the lives of over 12 percent of the national population. These improvements might include better health services, enhanced community services, increased information access and streamlined emergency services for the disabled. As advocates for physically and cognitively challenged individuals, tomorrow’s public health executives can close health service gaps and facilitate social, economic and environmental equality for the disabled.

Learn More

To learn to speak the language of health law and distinguish your role as a leader with specialized health care compliance expertise, look to pursue a Master in Health Law and Policy from Hofstra Law.

Recommended Readings:

Understanding Mobile Health Laws

5 Health Care Laws Protecting the Rights of Patients

Modern Policy Changes to Public Health Law


U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. National Library of Medicine