4 Facts You Need to Know About Disability Rights in D.C.

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When the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) forced Doretha Barber to choose between her medication and her job, Ms. Barber sued to enforce her rights.

Ms. Barber—a mother of four, a lifelong D.C. resident, and a DPW employee for over a decade—had long suffered from back spasms that prevented her from walking, standing, or lifting. Her condition also caused migraines so excruciating that they often brought her to tears. When traditional treatments proved inadequate, Ms. Barber’s doctor suggested that she try using medical marijuana. This treatment made Ms. Barber’s spasms less frequent and less painful.

In response to a DPW policy, Ms. Barber told DPW that she used medical marijuana. DPW then placed her on forced leave, which eventually became leave without pay, and informed her that she could not return to work until she stopped using medical marijuana—even though she used the medication only during her off-duty hours. After advocacy and ultimately a lawsuit by ACLU-D.C. and Ms. Barber, DPW assigned Ms. Barber to a new position allowing her to use medical marijuana after work, and eventually agreed to compensate Ms. Barber for the hardship of her time on forced leave.

Ms. Barber achieved these results by suing under the DC Human Rights Act—one of four laws that protect people with disabilities in the District. The other laws are federal—the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

Taken together, these laws provide significant protection against discrimination. And because people’s experiences of disability are often compounded by such factors as race, gender, and income, disability laws can help push back against other forms of oppression too. Disability laws, then, are an important tool for building a more just and free D.C.

Here’s what you need to know about disability rights in the District.

1. Employers, housing providers, and public businesses in the District have to follow disability rights laws.

All employers in the District of Columbia must follow the D.C. Human Rights Act, all employers with 15 or more employees must follow the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and employers who receive federal financial assistance must comply with the Rehabilitation Act. Educational, housing, public transit, and other service providers and businesses that serve the public (like restaurants and museums) are also subject to the D.C. Human Rights Act and/or federal disability rights laws as well.

2. Employers, housing providers, and public businesses cannot treat people with disabilities less favorably than they do other people.

Disability rights laws protect people with disabilities from both intentional and unintentional discrimination. For example, a restaurant would violate disability law if it intentionally barred people who use wheelchairs from working at the restaurant. That’s intentional discrimination. The law protects people from many forms of unintentional discrimination too. For example, a university might violate disability law if its classes showed videos without the captions that people who cannot hear need to understand the content. In this case, the university may not be intentionally discriminating against people who cannot hear, but its video practice imposes a disproportionate negative effect on these students, which could make the practice illegal disparate impact discrimination.

3. Employers, housing providers, and public businesses have to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.

Employers, housing providers, and public businesses must generally make reasonable changes to policies that hold people with disabilities back from performing their job duties, accessing housing, or using a service. The entity is not required to give the specific accommodation that a person requests, but they do have to show that the changes they make are reasonable.

For example, in Ms. Barber’s case, her employer said that she could not use medical marijuana outside of working hours and remain in her position as a sanitation worker. Ms. Barber asked for accommodation that would allow her to continue doing her job. DPW declined, but after Ms. Barber and ACLU-D.C. advocated for her rights, DPW agreed to transfer Ms. Barber to a different position where her employer agreed that she could continue using her medication. This accommodation was not Ms. Barber’s first choice, but it was a reasonable way for her to keep a DPW job and continue taking her medication.

Under the law, employers, housing providers, and public businesses do not have to grant accommodations that would cause an “undue hardship or a direct threat” to their operations. Courts have tended to decide on a case-by-case basis whether something counts as an undue hardship or a direct threat. To make the decision, courts have weighed the accommodation request against the entity’s resources, size, nature, and other considerations.

ACLU-D.C. Staff Attorney Michael Perloff explains that the law requires reasonable accommodations “because a lot of discrimination against people with disabilities doesn't occur by intent, but by indifference. So, the law forces employers, housing providers, and public businesses to consider people’s disabilities and accommodate them where possible.”

4. The first step in seeking reasonable accommodation is to make clear that you need a change in policy for your disability.

In general, the first step to getting an accommodation is for a person with a disability to tell the employer, housing provider, or business that they have a disability and need an accommodation to be able to perform the job, access the housing, or enjoy a service or product.

This request can be done verbally or in writing, informally or formally, and does not have to mention “reasonable accommodation” specifically. The request simply needs to make clear that 1) the person has a disability, and that 2) the person needs an alteration to how a policy or program operates so they can access housing, do a job, or benefit from a service.

If you believe that your disability rights have been violated in the District of Columbia, you can file a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You can also contact us at ACLU-D.C. to see whether we can help.