At first, it may seem daunting to pin down the causes of disability discrimination. This particular type of discrimination is seemingly a fixture in modern society, with instances popping up all over the nation, like the recent EEOC case against automaker Ford Motor Company involving a woman who needed to work from home because of her irritable bowel syndrome or the case against poultry processor House of Raeford Farms involving an employee with anemia whose request to work in a warmer climate was denied and allegedly led to her subsequent termination.

Though the exact causes may fall beyond the purview of this post, a few common causes of disability discrimination are at least within reach and worth discussing. According to the United Nations Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNSCRPD), discussing and understanding such causes is an essential aspect of eliminating the acts of discrimination which so many disabled individuals face far too often.

Another key element for combating common causes of disability discrimination is legislation aimed specifically at prohibiting such treatment. For example, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 contains a section which prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals in particular. Also, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has played a pivotal role in addressing the disagreeable attitudes and behavior that lead to disability discrimination in the private sector.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 specifically prohibits the exclusion of handicapped individuals. It states that a handicapped person “shall not be excluded from, be denied the benefit of or be subject to discrimination” due to participation in any program or activity that receives Federal assistance. This legislation served as the precursor for a much broader law which provides even more personal rights for disabled individuals, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Americans With Disabilities Act

In 1990, a group of disability activists, each themselves disabled, staged a demonstration advocating the passage of the ADA. That demonstration, in which the individuals discarded mobility devices and crawled up the steps of the White House, became known as the “Capitol Crawl.” It set the stage for the subsequent ratification of the first federal law to address disability discrimination in the private sector.

Under the ADA, a disability is defined as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Impairments may also fit the ADA definition if there is a record or history of such an impairment or if the employee is “regarded as” having an impairment that limits a major life activity. This definition includes a number of conditions from genetic impairments to medical conditions like the irritable bowel syndrome and anemia noted above. The broad coverage of the ADA also ensures that employers must provide reasonable accommodation for disabled individuals while at work unless doing so would cause the business undue hardship.

These legislative acts have been crucial in addressing the amount of discrimination in the workplace. They have given disabled individuals a form of recourse by opening up the realm of litigation to aggrieved employees facing unfair treatment on the job. In some ways, this legislation positively addresses many of the common causes of disability discrimination discussed here, but in others there is still much work to be done.

Common Causes of Disability Discrimination

1. Social and Cultural Barriers

One of the main culprits underlying disability discrimination is an insidious one: social and cultural barriers. Disability carries with it a seemingly insurmountable stigmatization that makes interacting and coping in day-to day life difficult for disabled individuals. Often these stigmas are at the root of disability discrimination. As the UN Secretariat points out, many of the solutions outlined in legislation look excellent on paper but have little reach in real life due to pervasive social and cultural barriers.

For disabled individuals who are also dealing with other stigmatized social characteristics, such as race or national origin, the discrimination can be doubly severe. However, the discrimination experienced by disabled individuals can differ greatly from that experience by those of historically underrepresented races or shunned national origins. For instance, a disabled person may experience exclusion based on harsh, apathetic attitudes or may experience patronizing behavior from those who have little experience dealing with disabilities.

2. Lack of Accommodation

The ADA was designed to counter the effects of disability discrimination as well as to improve the condition of disabled individuals who were often excluded from public places due to a lack of accommodation and access. The ADA requires that public places provide safe methods for disabled individuals to enter, exit, and use any public facility, including restrooms, elevators, public parking facilities and drinking fountains. In addition, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations at work for disabled employees.

3. Lack of Inclusion

A central factor of disability discrimination its tendency to isolate and exclude disabled individuals unfairly. The ADA specifically addresses this issue by prohibiting employers from segregating job applicants or using employment tests or job screening to eliminate disabled individuals during the employment process. It also prohibits companies from entering into contracts or creating administrative barriers for disabled employees.

4. Unemployment

Another factor that exacerbates the effects of disability discrimination is unemployment. Unemployment could also be considered an underlying cause of disability discrimination as well. Disabled individuals who can work, but are denied the right to work, sometimes experience a worsening of the condition. such circumstances can create a cycle of discrimination that is difficult to break.

Further, the unemployment of disabled individuals could trigger certain unconscious bias among hiring managers which makes finding work challenging for disabled individuals. A lack of previous work history or prolonged unemployment can be seen as negative factors and lead to discrimination in the working world.

5. Poverty

Yet another cause of disability discrimination is poverty. The combination of poverty and disability is all too prevalent. The UNSCRPD notes that poverty can lead to disability, and a disabled individual has an increased chance of becoming impoverished.

These factors can make finding suitable employment difficult for disabled workers. This is partly due to the cultural barriers discussed above, but it is also due to the fact that impoverished disabled workers lack the resources necessary both to address their conditions and to obtain the employment they need in order to find a way out of the condition of economic instability.

Often instances of discrimination become evident when disabled workers are forced into the lowest-paying jobs or are given few opportunities for advancement.

Exploring the Common Causes of Disability Discrimination

Exploring the common causes of disability discrimination can be beneficial. For employers, it helps to identify the underlying reasons for disability discrimination, and thus avoid the resultant litigation that can spring from apathetic attitudes. For disabled workers, knowing the roots of disability discrimination can make it easier to articulate personal work experience and thus determine whether important rights have been violated.