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What can (and can't) employers ask people with disabilities?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), last year, less than 20% of people with disabilities were employed. The majority of them were not in the workforce. For those who are, however, the picture isn't a rosy one. The unemployment rate last year for people with disabilities was more than double that of people without disabilities.

Many people with disabilities have to deal with the fear and ignorance of potential employers. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they are required to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities as long as it doesn't present an undue hardship to the business. An undue hardship could be a significant cost or disruption to the operation of the business. Typically, the best way to find out what kind of accommodations an employee needs is to ask them.

What employers or potential employers can't do, however, is ask a person questions like:

  • Are you disabled?
  • What is your disability?
  • Were you born with it?
  • How severe is your disability?
  • Is it going to get worse?
  • Are you able to drive? (unless that's part of the job)
  • Do you live by yourself, or do you have someone to take care of you?

They also can't require someone to take a medical examination prior to being hired unless every applicant for that job is required to take one.

Many employers don't understand what questions they're allowed to ask, so they just bypass people who are disabled entirely. They are allowed to ask questions related to a person's ability to perform the job for which they're applying (either with or without having reasonable accommodations). However, those questions shouldn't center on a person's disability -- only on the task(s) involved in the job.

If an employee is hired, the requirements remain basically the same. An employer can't ask an employee about their disability unless it's directly related to their ability to do their job. They can't require medical evaluations that other employees don't have to undergo.

Most employers these days are smart enough to know that they can't ask personal, intrusive questions about protected characteristics such as disability, race, sexual orientation or religion. Few will come right out and tell someone they weren't hired because of a disability. However, if you believe that you were the victim of discrimination in hiring or on the job, you can and should consider your legal options.

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