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Laws Related to Discrimination Against Special Needs in the Workplace

written by: Tess C. Taylor, HR Expert•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 12/14/2010

If you have special needs as a worker, how do you know you will be protected at work from discrimination? This article provides an overview of the federal laws as they pertain to discrimination against special needs employees in the workplace.

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    Workers who use wheelchairs are protected There are several laws related to discrimination against special needs employees in the workplace as established by government labor agencies in the United States, Canada and other developed countries. Following a wave of anti-discriminatory employment laws in the 21st century, which protect the rights of workers based on race, sex, nation origin, age and religious affiliation; laws were also established to preserve the dignity of individuals who have special needs as a result of a disability, pregnancy or other protected status.

    Special needs in the workplace are defined as any condition which requires special adaptations or modifications that workers need to be able to perform work duties. This can range from needing a lower desk to accommodate a wheelchair bound employee or allowing a work coach to assist learning disabled adults with performing normal work functions. Sometimes these special needs are temporary such as in the case of a worker who is pregnant or wearing a corrective device due to an injury, or they may be permanent requiring long term modifications. In either case, employers are bound by employment laws to accommodate employees who fall under protected classes.

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    The Founding Laws Protecting Special Needs Workers

    In 1964, the United States Congress passed the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which includes protection for workers at all public and privately owned companies, educational institutions and government agencies of 15 or more employees. These laws protect employees on the basis of color, race, national origin, religious beliefs and sex, but did little to help those who were experiencing special needs due to age or health matters. Then in 1967, an amendment to Title VII made it illegal to discriminate against a worker based on age, which helped to protect those experiencing special needs based on overall health at a certain age. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) also makes it illegal to discriminate against employees based on these special statutes.

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    Improvements in Laws Protecting Special Needs Employees

    In the mid 1980’s, a series of laws were passed in the USA to further protect the rights of many special needs employees, particularly those who are pregnant or caring for their children and relatives. These laws included the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) which prevents the termination of workers based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. In addition, this act led to the passing of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which also protects the rights of both parents who need to take time off to care for their children, whether natural born or adopted--or for a worker to care for a family member due to illness. There are now several states that allow for breaks for breastfeeding parents as well. These laws were put in place so that no job candidate could be discriminated against based on their parental or family duties.

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    Anti-Discrimination Laws for Handicapped Employees

    In the workplace, there are also a wide range of laws to protect special needs workers who are handicapped, either temporarily or permanently. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 2008 helps to give workplace accommodations to workers who are disabled and need special workplace modifications to do their jobs properly. This also protects handicapped workers from worrying that they will be selected for termination or lose out on workplace advancement based solely on their special needs. 2008 also ushered in the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who have certain special needs based on genetic results. Overall, the workplace is becoming friendlier to those who have special needs and laws continue to be presented which protect employees from being singled out based on their special needs.

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