Several laws protect people with disabilities who work in Washington State from discrimination. This publication explains many of these laws and provides information about actions a person may take if they believe workplace discrimination has occurred.

What Laws Prohibit Employment Discrimination in Washington State?

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Washington Law Against Discrimination, and other Washington local laws protect individuals with disabilities against employment discrimination. These laws are described next.

1. The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. It protects people who work for or seek employment with private companies and state and local governments.

How does the ADA define “an individual with a disability”?

The ADA defines an individual with a disability as one who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or
  • has a record of such an impairment, or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.
What is a “major life activity”?

Major life activities include, but are not limited to, general activities such as walking, reading, concentrating, and communicating, as well as the operation of major bodily functions, such as immune, digestive, reproductive, or respiratory system functions.

What does “substantially limit” mean?

An impairment does not have to prevent or significantly restrict a person from performing a major life activity in order to be substantially limiting. Whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is a question specific to each individual. Generally, it may be useful to consider the conditions under which the person performs the major life activity, the manner in which the person performs the major life activity, and the duration of time it takes for the person to perform the major life activity, as compared to most other people.

The determination of whether a major life activity is substantially limited is made without considering things such as medication, assistive technology (wheelchairs, walkers, crutches), or learned behavioral modifications, with the exception of ordinary eyeglasses and contact lenses. An impairment that has outbreaks or is in remission is considered a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity when it is active.

A person does not need to have a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working to be protected from discrimination in the work environment. The substantial limitation can be of any major life activity.

What do “has a record of impairment” and “is regarded as having an impairment” mean?

Having a record of impairment means having a history of an impairment, like cancer that is controlled or in remission.

A person is regarded as having an impairment when the employer perceives that the person has an impairment, whether or not the impairment exists, and takes an action against the person as a result. It does not matter if the impairment substantially limits, or is perceived to substantially limit, a major life activity. However, minor impairments and impairments that are expected to last six months or less are not included.

What employers are covered by the ADA?

The ADA generally applies to private employers who have fifteen or more employees, and to all state and local governments. It also covers employment agencies and labor unions.

How does the ADA protect people with disabilities in employment?

The ADA prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability in job application procedures, hiring, firing, job advancement, compensation, and any other privileges of employment. Disability discrimination occurs when an employer or other entity covered by the ADA treats an individual with a disability who is an employee or applicant unfavorably because of the individual’s actual or perceived disability. The law also protects people from discrimination based on their relationship with a person with a disability, even if they do not themselves have a disability. For example, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because the employee’s husband has a disability.

The ADA also requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified people with disabilities to enable them to do their jobs. A qualified person is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. A reasonable accommodation could include making existing facilities accessible, job restructuring, or modifying equipment or schedules. An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation if it knows of the disability and the accommodation would not cause an “undue hardship” to the employer. An accommodation may result in an undue hardship if it requires significant difficulty or expense.

2. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities when the employer is the Federal government, including the United States Post Office, or the employer has a contract with or receives financial assistance from the federal government.

How does the Rehabilitation Act define disability?

The Rehabilitation Act uses the same definition of disability as the ADA.

What employers are covered by the Rehabilitation Act?

Executive agencies of the federal government, the United States Postal Service, federal contractors, and activities and programs that receive federal money are covered by the Rehabilitation Act.

How does the Rehabilitation Act protect people with disabilities in employment?

Employers covered by the Rehabilitation Act cannot discriminate against qualified job applicants on the basis of disability. In addition, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer.

3. Washington Law Against Discrimination

Washington State has its own law protecting people from discrimination called the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD).

What is the WLAD definition of disability?

A disability under the WLAD is a sensory, mental, or physical impairment that:

  • is medically recognized or diagnosed;
  • exists as a record; or
  • is perceived to exist whether or not it exists in fact.

Under the WLAD, a disability exists regardless of whether it is temporary or permanent.  It includes, but is not limited to, any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as the neurological, respiratory, digestive, or reproductive body system. It also includes any mental, developmental, traumatic, or psychological disorder, including emotional or mental illnesses and learning disabilities.

What employers are covered by the WLAD?

The WLAD generally applies to employers with eight or more employees, labor unions, and employment agencies.

How does the WLAD protect people with disabilities in employment?

The WLAD protects people with disabilities in employment by prohibiting “unfair practices” by employers, labor unions, and employment agencies.

What is an “unfair practice”?

For employers, it is an unfair practice to refuse to hire a person because the person has a disability, unless the disability prevents the person from properly performing the job. It is an unfair practice to terminate a person’s employment, or bar them from employment, because of a disability. It is also an unfair practice for an employer to discriminate against a person in pay or other conditions of employment because the person has a disability. Lastly, it is an unfair practice to use job advertisements, applications, or questions that discriminate against people with disabilities.

For labor unions, it is an unfair practice to deny membership and full membership rights and privileges to a person because of the person’s disability. It is also an unfair practice to terminate a person’s membership because of a disability. Lastly, it is an unfair practice for a labor union to discriminate against a person to whom the union owes a duty of representation because of the person’s disability.

For employment agencies, it is an unfair practice to fail to classify or refer a person for employment because of a disability. It is also an unfair practice to use job advertisements, applications, or questions that discriminate against people with disabilities.

4. Other Washington Local Laws

Many Washington cities and counties have laws prohibiting discrimination in employment. People can check with the city or county they work in to see if there are laws that could apply. For example, King County prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in county employment. In Seattle, it is illegal for the City, private employers with one or more employees, employment agencies, and labor unions to discriminate against people on the basis of disability.

What Can A Person Do If They Believe They Have Been Discriminated Against By Their Employer?

  1. Talk to the Employer. A person may talk with the employer to try to resolve the situation. For example, the employee may need a reasonable accommodation to perform their job and should request such accommodation from the employer.
  2. Internal Complaint Process. If the employer has an internal complaint process, the employee may follow that process.
  3. File a Complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Washington State Human Rights Commission (HRC). If the two options above do not work or the person chooses not to pursue them, an employee or applicant may contact the EEOC and/or the HRC. The EEOC is the federal agency that investigates and enforces the ADA in employment. The HRC is the Washington state agency that investigates and enforces the WLAD. An individual who has been discriminated against should contact the EEOC or HRC as soon as possible after the alleged discrimination. Both the EEOC and HRC have strict timelines and deadlines for filing a charge or complaint of discrimination. A person generally must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days from when the discrimination occurred. To file a complaint of discrimination with the HRC under the WLAD, the complaint must be filed within six months of the act of discrimination.
  4. Local Government Process. If the city or county in which the employer is located has an antidiscrimination law, it will likely have its own complaint process. It may be useful to check with the relevant city and/or county agency in which the discrimination occurred.

Where should a person file a complaint of discrimination if the employee is protected under both the WLAD and the ADA?

If a person is protected under both the WLAD and the ADA, the person may file complaints with both the HRC and EEOC. If a person who files a complaint with the HRC is also protected by federal law, then the HRC will “dual file” the charge with the EEOC. Similarly, if a charge is filed with the EEOC and the person is covered by state law, the EEOC will “dual file” the charge with the HRC.

Can an individual sue an employer without first contacting the EEOC or HRC?

The answer depends on whether the person is looking to sue to enforce their rights under the ADA or the WLAD. In order to file a lawsuit under the ADA, a person must first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and complete the EEOC process. After the EEOC concludes its investigation, it will give the complainant a “Right to Sue” letter. The complainant has 90 days from receipt of that letter to sue the employer in federal court. An individual may ask the EEOC for a “Right to Sue” letter if more than 180 days have passed since a charge of discrimination was filed and an investigation has not been completed. In limited instances, the EEOC may sue on the complainant’s behalf.

A person may file a lawsuit in state court under the WLAD without filing a complaint with the HRC. It is a good idea to consult an attorney before filing a lawsuit.

Are there special rules for federal employees who have experienced employment discrimination?

Yes. Generally, a federal employee alleging employment discrimination must contact an EEOC counselor within 45 days of the discrimination. Usually, the counselor will give the employee the choice of participating in EEOC counseling or an alternative dispute resolution program (ADR), such as mediation, to resolve the problem. If the problem is not resolved through counseling or ADR, then the employee may file a complaint with the EEOC. The complaint must be filed within 15 days from receiving notice from the EEOC counselor about how to file. Contact information for the EEOC is listed in the next section of this page.

The following organizations may provide more information on this topic:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
EEOC Seattle Field Office
Federal Office Building
909 1st Avenue, Ste 400
Seattle, WA 98104-1061
(800) 669-4000 / TTY: 800-669-6820

The EEOC website has information on employment discrimination, including how to file a charge of discrimination.

Northwest ADA Center
6912 220th St SW, Ste 105
Mountlake Terrace, WA 98043
Voice/TTY (800) 949-4232

Northwest ADA Center provides information and guidance for consumers with disabilities about the ADA.

Washington State Human Rights Commission
Olympia Headquarters
711 S Capitol Way, Ste 402
Olympia, WA 98504
(800) 233-3247 / TTY (800) 300-7525

HRC enforces the WLAD; information about how to file an employment discrimination complaint can be found on its website.

The following federal funding partners shared in the cost of producing this material: The Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities AIDD (1601WAPADD); The Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA (16MSP05397); the Rehabilitation Services Administration RSA (H240A140048); and the Social Security Administration SSA (6 PAB13020299-01-05). These contents are the sole responsibility of Disability Rights Washington, and do not necessarily represent the official views of AIDD, SAMHSA, RSA or SSA.

SSA has reviewed the following publication for technical accuracy only; this should not be considered an official SSA document.

This information is current as of: May 2016

This information is a service of Disability Rights Washington (DRW). It provides general information as a public service only, and is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, you should contact an attorney. You do not have an attorney-client relationship with DRW. If you would like more information about this topic or would like to receive this information in an alternative format call DRW at (800) 562-2702, or email

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