Discrimination Based on Disability in California

Employees that have been discriminated against based on their disability often don’t know how to hold their employers accountable, often trying to ignore the harassment due to the fear of losing their jobs. To make matters worse, some are idle even when their employers lower their pay or decline their leave. 

Discrimination based on disability in California is prohibited, and disabled employees are also protected under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act that protects state, private, and local employees) or the Rehabilitation Act (that protects federal employees). 

These disability laws prohibit harassment and discrimination for all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, job assignments, promotions, pay, benefits, layoffs, training, and any other conditions or terms of employment. 

If you’re wondering what you can do about disability discrimination in the workplace - you’ve come to the right place. Let’s learn a bit more about what falls under the term ‘disability’ and which disability categories are protected. 

Disability Types (By Definition)

The definition of disability is broad and favors extensive coverage permitted by the law, as directed by the ADA. However, according to the law, not everyone with a specific medical condition can get protection from disability discrimination. 

A person has a disability if they:

  • Have a mental or physical condition that largely impacts or limits a major activity (talking, walking, seeing, hearing, learning) or the operation of major bodily functions such as brain, respiratory, circulatory, musculoskeletal, or endocrine functions. 
  • Have a history of disability
  • Experience adverse employment actions due to mental or physical impairment that the person has or is perceived as having unless it’s transitory (expected to last or lasting six months or less). 

Medical conditions don’t need to be permanent, long-term, or severe to be largely limiting. Four primary categories of disability are recognized by the law, under which the disabled employee may garner protection against discrimination and harassment. 

Physical Disability

Physical disability implies that certain physical actions cannot be taken without substantial issues (or they’re impossible). Some examples of this include people in wheelchairs who might need access to a wheelchair ramp and an easier way to get around the workplace since they can’t go up the stairs. 

Physically disabled people must receive equal compensation, tasks, job requirements, and benefits as able-bodied employees. They must also be provided reasonable accommodations such as a bathroom that they can access and use properly, wheelchair ramps, etc. 

The only exception to this rule is if the physical disability doesn’t majorly impact their ability to do the job they’ve been assigned to (e.g. a missing finger) or, if such changes to the work environment would constitute undue hardships where the company has no way of effectively budgeting for said changes or if making these changes is too difficult. 

This is determined based on the employer’s size, business needs, and financial resources. 

Mental Disability

Mentally-disabled people are often subjected to workplace discrimination, harassment, and humiliation, and not just from their employers but colleagues and customers/clients as well. Mental disability falls in the same category as physical disability. 

Harassment is illegal if it is so severe or frequent that it creates a hostile work environment for the victim or if it results in adverse employment decisions (firing or demoting the victim). 

On top of that, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because their spouse or partner has a disability (this is true for all forms of disability discrimination). 

Medical Condition

If an employee develops a medical condition that eventually causes a disability, the employer is prohibited from making employment decisions that are based on the employee’s current medical condition or disability. 

However, this is not true in the case of the employee becoming incapable of doing the same job they used to before developing the disability or medical condition. The employer can choose to fire said employee if the reason is justified, but this must be done in a manner that is governed by the law. 

Genetic Information

Employers are limited in how they can approach disability-related questions, medical exams, or the identification of disabilities. Any and all genetic and disability-related information must be kept confidential. 

For example, employers cannot directly ask job applicants and employees whether they have a disability or not or request a medical exam before extending the job offer or hiring the applicant.

Employers can ask the applicant if they can perform the job and how well they’d be able to perform the job without a reasonable accommodation, and if they’d require a reasonable accommodation to begin with. 


While people with disabilities can often perform the job they’re assigned on a high-performance level, employers sometimes see them as disposable and not worthy of being treated the same way as able-bodied employees. 

This stigma surrounding people with disabilities is damaging to their livelihoods and careers and should not be permitted. 

Fortunately, some laws provide protection against disability discrimination where the victims can seek compensation for experiencing harassment or worse. 

If you’ve been a target of discrimination based on disability in California, we are here to help! Schedule a free consultation with our legal team and we’ll provide insights into what can be done. Freeburg & Granieri has many years of experience representing employees who have experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace so we can assure you that you will be in good hands. 


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