Disability and your rights at work: What you need to know

If you’re among the one in five New Zealanders with a disability, your employment rights are protected by law.

The Human Rights Act 1993 provides a broad definition of disability, which includes any illness, as well as physical, mental and intellectual disabilities or impairments.

Any of these disabilities may be caused by accident, trauma, genetics or disease. They may be temporary or permanent, visible or invisible, but they are all protected from discrimination.

We’ve asked an employment lawyer for insights into equal opportunity and the reasonable accommodations that employers may need to make to ensure your rights are protected.

What is disability discrimination?

Disability discrimination happens when people with a disability are treated less fairly than those without a disability. This kind of discrimination is prohibited under the Human Rights Act 1993.

Dilshen Dahanayake, Solicitor, MinterEllisonRuddWatts, explains that discrimination may be direct or indirect. In an employment context, direct discrimination might include:

  • Refusing or failing to employ a person because of their disability, even though it has no impact on their ability to meet the inherent requirements of the job
  • Giving an employee less favourable terms of employment, limiting access to benefits, or failing to consider them for promotion because of their disability
  • Firing an employee because of their disability
  • Causing an employee to retire or resign because of their disability

Dahanayake says indirect discrimination is more nuanced.

“It means workplace practices or policies that at first glance do not seem discriminatory but prevent a certain group of people from participating in them,” he says. “An example in this context would be a workplace only being accessible by stairs, which indirectly discriminates against people who use wheelchairs.”

Dahanayake says that while disadvantageous treatment of employees with disability is generally unlawful, there are some exceptions.

“One of the exceptions is where it is not reasonable to expect the employer to provide special services or facilities that the employee needs to perform their role satisfactorily,” he says.

“Another exception is where, because of the work environment, the individual’s performance of their role could create an unreasonable risk of harm to themselves or others, and there are no reasonable measures the employer could take to reduce the risk.”

This could include the risk of the individual infecting others with an illness, for example. “Disability discrimination that would otherwise be disadvantageous may also be lawful where the role is for domestic work in a private household,” adds Dahanayake.

What are ‘reasonable accommodations’?

If you’re the best person for the job, your employer must make workplace changes or ‘reasonable accommodations’ if you need them to perform the inherent requirements of the job.

“Examples of such accommodations might be providing training to other staff, such as disability awareness training or training on how to communicate with deaf or blind employees, or making physical modifications to the workplace to increase accessibility,” says Dahanayake.

As the Human Rights Act 1993 doesn’t define what is ‘reasonable’, this will depend on particular circumstances, such as the adjustments required, the cost and the size of the employer.

Do you have to disclose a disability?

Dahanayake says that as medical information is personal information, you are not required to disclose it to a prospective employer if you are not asked to.

“However, a job applicant who has a disability and chooses not to disclose that disability should be careful not to mislead a prospective employer about their ability to perform the role they have applied for,” he says. “Whether a job applicant should disclose their disability will likely depend on what the disability is, and whether the disability would be likely to impact the individual’s performance of the role.

Dahanayake adds that you should be prepared to answer questions that relate to your ability to perform your role.

“For example, an application form for a role as a window cleaner may require the applicant to provide information that is specific to their ability to perform work at a height,” he says.

“Some employment agreements include a condition of employment that the employee has disclosed all information material to the decision to employ them, including the employee’s ability to perform the role,” adds Dahanayake. “In this situation, an employee may need to disclose their disability if it could impact their ability to perform the role to ensure this condition is complied with.”

There may also be some disabilities that should be disclosed from a health and safety perspective.

“Employers have obligations to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers,” says Dahanayake.

“Employees also have obligations to take care for their own health and safety. To ensure these obligations can be complied with, it may be necessary to disclose a disability if the disability could impact on these obligations.”

It’s also important to know that a prospective employer can only ask you about your disability for a lawful purpose. Dahanayake says this might be to understand what support you would require to perform the role.

“Importantly, it is unlawful for a prospective employer to ask a job applicant any question that indicates, or could reasonably be understood as indicating, an intention to unlawfully discriminate against the job applicant,” adds Dahanayake. “This will likely be inferred if there is no legitimate reason to ask the question.

Where can you go for support?

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against because of a disability or reasonable accommodation request, you can seek help from the Human Rights Commission.

“If you are a current employee and you are unable to resolve your grievance informally with your employer, you can either make a complaint with the Human Rights Commission or bring a claim in the Employment Relations Authority, but not both,” says Dahanayake.

The Ministry of Disabled People also offers Modification Grants, which may help people with disability to pay for workplace changes or equipment that makes it easier to stay in or to get work.

A person with a disability has a right to the same employment opportunities as a person without a disability. If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against, your rights are protected by the law.

Information provided in this article is general only and it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. SEEK provides no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability or completeness. Before taking any course of action related to this article you should make your own inquiries and seek independent advice (including the appropriate legal advice) on whether it is suitable for your circumstances.

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