Discrimination laws regarding people with disabilities

Ensuring equal access for people with disabilities

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the Disabled Persons Act are state laws that protect people from discrimination based on disability. The laws also require employers, housing providers and business establishments to make reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities can perform their jobs, have equal housing opportunities, and, have equal access to businesses and services.

In California disabilities are broadly defined as conditions that limit a major life activity, including physical and mental disabilities, as well as medical conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS. California definitions and protections can be broader than protections under federal law.

A partial list of disabilities recognized by state law, are in the boxes.

Find legal definitions of disabilities here.

Employing people with disabilities

Disability discrimination occurs when an employer treats a qualified employee or applicant unfavorably because she has a disability. It is also unlawful to treat a qualified employee or applicant less favorably because of a history of disability, because of the employer’s belief that the individual may have a disability, or because of the individual’s relationship with a person with a disability.

The law also requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer (“undue hardship”).

Reasonable accommodation defined

Other guidelines include:

  • Employers must evaluate job applicants regardless of their actual or perceived disabilities. They can’t ask about the nature or severity of disabilities nor can they require an applicant to take medical or psychological exams that aren’t routinely given to other prospective hires.
  • Employers may ask an applicant about his/her ability to perform job-related functions and respond to a request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Employers may (but do not have to) ask for medical certification of an employee’s or applicant’s need for reasonable accommodation.
  • If there is a question of what accommodation is possible or whether it will allow an employee or applicant to do the job, employers are required to engage in a timely, good faith interactive process with the person who needs support to do a job or his or her representative. This process can clarify what job functions are essential, what accommodations are possible, and whether accommodating an employee with disability will be an “undue hardship” to the business operation.

Guidance on interactive process for reasonable accommodation

Legal definitions: Employment and Disabilities

Equal services, housing for people with disabilities

All California retail establishments, restaurants, hospitals, hotels and other public places and transportation must offer people with disabilities the same service and facilities as the general public. This includes acceptance of service animals.

People with disabilities are also protected when they seek housing. State law prohibits discrimination by sellers, landlords and those who provide housing-related services.

  • Housing policies, practices, terms and conditions must allow people with disabilities equal access to apartments, houses, condos and other dwellings.
  • Where necessary, reasonable accommodations in housing rules, policies, practices, or services are required to allow people with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy dwellings.
  • People with disabilities must be allowed, at their own expense, to make reasonable modifications to their dwelling to allow them equal access and enjoyment.

See California’s Disabled Persons Act.

Complaint process

Filing a complaint

If you have a disability and feel you have been harassed or discriminated against by an employer, housing provider or place of business, you can file a discrimination complaint. For employment cases only, Contact DFEH within three years of the last incident and then fill out a form titled “intake form.” For all other cases, Contact DFEH within one year of the last incident and then fill out a form titled “intake form.

That sets in motion a series of legally required steps that DFEH must carefully follow. It’s important to know that DFEH doesn’t take sides when a complaint is filed. We investigate the facts and encourage parties to resolve the dispute in appropriate cases.  DFEH considers taking legal action if evidence supports a finding of discrimination and the dispute is not resolved.

Full step-by-step description of the complaint process

Flow chart of the complaint process

Disabilities defined

California protects people with disabilities from discrimination from employers, housing providers and business establishments. Here are some examples of the disabilities recognized by state law.

Physical disabilities

  • Impaired eyesight, hearing, speech
  • Chronic diseases such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDs, diabetes
  • Physiological challenges such as loss of a limb
  • Pregnancy and childbirth

Mental disabilities

  • Chronic diseases such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression
  • Intellectual or cognitive disability
  • Specific learning disabilities

Disabilities do not include sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania or impairment from the unlawful use of controlled substances.