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Enhance Your Understanding of Employment-Related and Other Civil Rights Laws

Students and job seekers with disabilities and their allies must recognize that economic empowerment does not take place within a vacuum. Relating to children’s education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires “a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.” For more detailed information about the IDEA, there’s a series of reports from the National Council on Disability, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Report Series. In addition, for students with disabilities of all ages, there is anti-discrimination protection under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the federal level, these laws are enforced by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education. OCR works in close partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice on disability cases that relate to education. For Native American students with disabilities on federal lands, enforcement of civil rights in educational settings is conducted by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) at the U.S. Department of the Interior. For more information, read Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities.

Outside the classroom, there are many other important civil rights laws. The Antidiscrimination Group in the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “engages in policy work to ensure fair and equitable treatment of individuals and guard against discrimination…in DHS programs and activities,” including as applied to persons with disabilities under Section 504. Regarding health care, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforces Section 504, Section 508, Title II of the ADA, and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As far as housing is concerned the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces Section 504, ADA Title II and Title III, and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). The Disability Rights Section (DRS) of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice enforces Section 504 and ADA Titles II and III. Regarding transportation rights, see this directory of civil rights offices in the U.S. Department of Transportation. Relating to telecommunications, the Federal Communications Commission rules under Section 255 of the Communications Actrequire telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities. And finally, across the federal government, there are civil rights offices working to protect the employment rights of people with disabilities.

Considering that 2017 statistics show that 14.3% of students with disabilities nationwide identify as English Language Learners and 2014 figures show how one in 10 working-age U.S. adults is considered limited English proficient, it’s critical to keep in mind the needs of those with limited English proficiency. Executive Order 13166, Improving Access to Services with Persons with Limited English Proficiency, requires that persons with limited English proficiency have meaningful access to federally-conducted programs and activities, including services and benefits.

For a significant number of people with disabilities, including those who may have been employed, the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences. The Administration for Community Living at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established an important resource page with some of the latest developments of interest to persons with disabilities and their families. The CDC also offers people with disabilities critical resources about how to protect themselves, in particular, people with developmental disabilities. To inform the disability community further which has so disproportionately suffered economically, RespectAbility has compiled an online resource page, COVID-19 Economic Benefits How-To Guide, that is updated in real time, and which answers some of the most pressing questions, including:

  • “What do I do if I’m a person with a disability and lost my job because of COVID-19?”
  • “What about COVID-19 specific unemployment resources?”
  • “What if I’m on SSI or SSDI but I lost my part-time job? Can I claim unemployment?”
  • “What about accessing food benefits?”
  • “Are there any federal agencies or programs providing information to help people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic?”
  • “Where can I find more local information about COVID-19 and resources that can help me?”
  • “What do I do if I am at risk of COVID-19 and have roommates or live in a group home where people are not practicing social distancing or taking precautions?” (On this subject, the CDC has advice for people with disabilities living in group homes.)

Returning to a focus on employment, students, and job seekers with disabilities, as well as employers, need to know that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide qualified individuals with disabilities[1] an equal opportunity to benefit from the full range of employment-related options available to others. “For example, it prohibits discrimination in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other privileges of employment. It restricts questions that can be asked about an applicant’s disability before a job offer is made, and it requires that employers make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities, unless it results in undue hardship. Religious entities with 15 or more employees are covered under Title I.”[2] The federal government is covered under Sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTACs) are there to help people with disabilities, employees, employers and businesses better understand their rights and obligations under the law. For more information about your employment rights, read these resources from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, Employment Rights: Who Has Them and Who Enforces Them? and Employment Laws: Disability & Discrimination.


[1] An individual with a disability is defined by the Act as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The Act does not specifically name all the impairments that are covered.

[2] “A Guide to Disability Rights Laws,” Disability Rights Section, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, http://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm#anchor62335.

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