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Disability in the Workplace: An Overview of Global Employees’ Rights

Table of Contents

With an estimated 1 billion people in the world living with a disability, disability in the workplace is common. Unfortunately, discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace is also common.

Employees with disabilities should know their rights and how to escalate their concerns; employers should be prepared to handle notices of discrimination quickly and effectively.

We’ve put together an overview of some regulations regarding disability in the workplace.

What Is a Disability?

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines protections for qualified individuals with disabilities. Under the ADA, the term disability refers to anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; anyone who has a record of such an impairment; or anyone regarded as having such an impairment.

What Is Workplace Discrimination of Employees With Disabilities? 

Types of workplace disability discrimination - direct and indirect

Discrimination against qualified individuals in the workplace may be direct or indirect.

Direct discrimination occurs in the workplace when a manager or peer exhibits outright prejudice or unfair behavior toward an employee who has a disability. Direct discrimination may include outright comments, work policies that target certain employees with disabilities, and/or smaller interactions that build a culture of discomfort at work.

Indirect discrimination can occur when all employees are treated the same, yet the treatment results in an inherent disadvantage. What constitutes direct and indirect disability discrimination may vary depending on local regulations.

What Qualifies as Disability Discrimination in the U.S.? 

Any direct or indirect discrimination against employees with disabilities in the workplace may be considered disability discrimination. In many cases, the ADA protects qualified employees with disabilities. Although the ADA does not apply to private employers with fewer than 15 employees, all employers, regardless of size, may also be subject to state and local employment laws. Please consult with your legal counsel to learn more about laws specific to your state.

What Are Examples of Disability Discrimination in the Workplace?

Some common examples of workplace disability discrimination may include:

  • Withholding promotions or opportunities from employees with disabilities
  • Refusing to provide accommodations like wheelchair ramps or screen readers
  • Making negative comments or remarks toward employees with disabilities
  • Asking applicants for their medical history or about their disabilities
  • Demoting an employee after they become disabled
  • Withholding promotions because of a family member’s disability
  • Letting bias against people with disabilities impact your hiring decisions
  • Harassing employees with disabilities

How To Handle Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

Discrimination in the workplace can be hurtful, uncomfortable, and difficult to address. However, tackling the situation head-on can help change your workplace for the better.

For Business Leaders

When business leaders spot discrimination in their workplace, they should work with their counsel and Human Resources to take immediate action to address and put a stop to it. A few ways employers can address discrimination in the workplace include:

  • Establish a formal complaint process. Create a safe and effective way for employees who experience discrimination to report the incident.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations. Make your employees feel valued and cared for by providing the accommodations they need to succeed.
  • Take swift action. If you receive a discrimination report from one of your employees, take swift action to make sure the issue is resolved.
  • Conduct sensitivity training. If you see discrimination, use it as a learning experience to train your workforce about what is incorrect and inappropriate behavior.

It is imperative to discuss any actions taken with counsel and Human Resources. 

For Employees 

If you are discriminated against at work in the U.S., you may be protected under federal and state law.

  • Know your rights. All employees have rights. If you feel you’re the target of discrimination, know which rights will protect you.
  • Take it up with HR. Contact your employer’s Human Resources department to notify them of the discrimination you’re experiencing.
  • File a discrimination complaint. If your employer fails to adequately resolve the issue, file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the agency that handles discrimination complaints in your state or country.

Global Protections for Disabled Workers

Anti-disability discrimination laws around the world - Equality Act 2010 (U.K.), The Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons (China), Employment Equity Directive (Europe), Employment Equity Act (South Africa), and the Persons with Disabilities Act (India)

Disability protections vary across the globe, but most countries have laws in place to provide protection for individuals with disabilities. If you manage a remote international workforce, a compliance partner can help ensure you’re complying with all applicable regulations.


The European Union (which includes Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Spain, and Sweden, among other countries) provides protections with regulations.

  • The Employment Equality Directive. This directive is part of the EU’s labor laws and prohibits workplace discrimination of employees based on disability and other factors. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.


Citizens with disabilities in China are protected under the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons. These laws aim to ensure that disabled people are able to live life the same way people without disabilities are.

  • The Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons. These laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities trying to gain or sustain employment. To encourage hiring of disabled people, the laws also require some employers to maintain a certain minimum percentage of disabled employees in their workforce.

The United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, people are protected under the Equality Act 2010. People qualify if they have a mental or physical condition that has a substantial effect on their ability to perform day-to-day activities and that will last, or is likely to last more than one year.

  • Equality Act 2010. This act prohibits discrimination of prospective or current employees with disabilities and also requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for these employees if they are placed at a substantial disadvantage due to their disability.

South Africa

The Employment Equity Act in South Africa aims to protect employees on the basis of any discrimination they may face, including disability-based discrimination.

  • Employment Equity Act. These laws aim to protect marginalized groups by prohibiting discrimination against them and implementing affirmative action programs. These laws do not apply to the South African National Defense Force, National Intelligence Agency, and South African Secret Services.


In India, employees are protected by the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act. Disabilities under this act include physical disabilities like blindness or low vision and impaired hearing or deafness, intellectual disabilities like autism, mental illness, and disabilities caused by certain blood diseases or chronic neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

  • Persons With Disabilities Act. This act ensures that jobs that are a fit for people with disabilities are prioritized for them. Promotions cannot be denied on the grounds of disability, and employees who become disabled while working cannot be demoted. Also, some public sector employers are required to employ people with disabilities as 5% or more of their workforce.

Advocate for Your Employees

Employers should take every step possible to make sure they aren’t directly or indirectly discriminating against their employees — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because not doing so can result in a lawsuit.

If you’re looking to hire a dispersed workforce, you should also educate yourself about the labor laws — including disability discrimination laws — that protect employees in your chosen locale. To help navigate these laws, consider partnering with us to help hire and manage your team.

Contact us today to see how we can help.

Legal Disclaimer: The information available in this guide does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. 

You should contact your attorney to obtain legal advice with respect to any particular legal matter. Only your individual attorney can provide assurances that the information contained in this guide – and your interpretation of it – is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the information in this guide are hereby expressly disclaimed. The content on this guide is provided "as is" and no representations are made that the content is error-free.

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