Most folks associate “disability” with severely debilitating catastrophic physical injuries. When they hear the word “disability” they immediately think of a someone in a wheelchair, on crutches, or with a cast. They are perplexed when they see a person who looks perfectly fine from the outside walk out of a car with a disabled placard. While it is safe to assume that a person with severely debilitating catastrophic physical injuries would qualify, it becomes far more difficult to determine if a person is legally “disabled” when their condition is less severe. This is partly because there is no single universal legal definition of the term “disability” that applies in every situation. Since there are many different laws which cover many different aspects of life, the word “disability” carries a different meaning depending on the situation, and the law in question.

What is a qualifying disability in the employment setting?

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act governs many aspects of the relationship between a California employer and California employee. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, an employee may have a “qualifying” disability if his or her physical or mental condition “limits” a major life activity. This protection extends to both permanent and temporary disabilities. The existence of a “disability” is a case-by-case determination considering the limitations at issue along with the major life activities affected. The best way for any employee to figure out if Fair Employment and Housing Act applies to them, and determine if their condition qualifies as a disability under the Act is to consult an experienced employment lawyer.

What are the employer’s obligations if its employee becomes disabled?

If an employee’s disability meets the definition of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the law gives the employee certain important rights. Notably, an employer is required to engage a disabled employee in what is known as an “interactive process” to determine how to accommodate the employee’s disability. Moreover, the law requires the employer to reasonably accommodate the employee’s disability. Last but not least the Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees, treating them differently, retaliating against, harassing, or terminating them because of the disability. Thus, contrary to what some folks mistakenly believe, an employer can’t just fire someone because they are unable to work due to a disability.

What types of accommodations must an employer provide to a disabled employee?

The Fair Employment and Housing Act requires covered employers to make a reasonable accommodation for the known disabilities of applicants and employees to enable them to perform a position’s “essential functions” unless doing so would produce “undue hardship” to the employer’s operations. A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to the workplace that enables the employee to perform the “essential functions” of his or her job. Examples of a reasonable accommodation include: job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, permitting the employee to take more breaks, reassignment to a vacant position, permitting the employee to take a leave of absence, permitting the employee to work from home, etc…. While employers must provide reasonable accommodations, not all accommodation requests must be provided. An employer is not required to provide the requested accommodation if it is unreasonable or would cause an “undue hardship” to the business operations.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is not legal advice. The Akopyan Law Firm does not provide legal advice unless and until it is formally retained, and an attorney client contract is signed. Each case is unique. The laws may or may not apply to your particular situation. This should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions may have laws and regulations that differ substantially from one another. The Akopyan Law Firm does not provide legal services, or practice law outside of the State of California. You should always consult an attorney in your jurisdiction regarding any specific legal issue. If you have any questions about your rights, it is best to speak with an experienced employment attorney.