Disability Law Legal Guide

The basics of federal disability law

This guide provides some basic information about disability law in the federal sector, the protections employees have, the reasonable accommodation process and the process of asserting your rights if an agency discriminates against you on the basis of a disability, or fails to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Rehab Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by federal agencies and contractors.  The standards for determining discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act mirror those used in Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that a person cannot be treated unfavorable because of their disability when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.

However, a majority of federal employment disability cases revolve around harassment as a result of a disability or failure to accommodate a disability in the workplace. This is not to say that causes of action are not valid when it comes to other conditions of employment, but typically harassment and failure to accommodate cases have more extensive factual records to rely on and present more contentious situations. Therefore, we will cover those two sections of disability law below.

Harassment due to a disability

It is illegal for a federal employee to harass an employee because she has a disability, had one in the pat, or is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory.

Harassment is a broad term, so it is important to define it.  For our purposes harassment includes offensive remarks about a disability, the frequency and severity of the comments will be relevant as well.  Further, regular and severe comments could support a claim for a hostile work environment.

Reasonable Accommodation

A federal employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the agency. It is noteworthy, that the significant expense or difficulty standard is a moving target and is very case dependent.  However, generally it appears that the difficulty must be great and the cost must be quite significant.


A reasonable accommodation is defined as a change in the work environment or process that aids a person with a disability to perform that job.  Examples of such accommodations include making the workplace accessible for a person with limited mobility or providing special computer software for a vision impaired employee.

Requirement that employee is capable of performing essential functions of job

A threshold requirement, however, is that an employee must be able to accomplish the essential functions of the job with accommodation.  Accordingly, agencies do not have to hire an individual who cannot perform the essential functions of the job even with a reasonable accommodation.  For example, a pilot is hired to fly planes, and an individual who is blind will not be able to make a claim of discrimination where they are not hired for that job due to their blindness, since they simply can’t perform the essential function of the job. This example, is oversimplified and much inquiry will go into each case regarding the essential functions of the job, whether they were properly communicated and whether the claimed essential functions actually match those of similarly situated employees’ real life experience.