Need to Know: What Are Disability Laws?

Tamara Sellman avatar

by Tamara Sellman |

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Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum.

This week’s question is inspired by the forum topic “Have you ever been discriminated against due to your disability?” from May 29, 2018.

On disability: One writer’s journey

I recently attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference in Portland, Oregon.

I was delighted to encounter discussion panels of interest to writers and students with chronic or invisible illness and disability to learn about the groundbreaking creative work coming from various “disease” communities.

It seems that the #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs movement is alive and kicking.

The Disabilities Literature Consortium (DLC) hosted a booth representing disabled authors and a literary reading featuring regional contributors living with disability and chronic illness including multiple sclerosis (MS), deafness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.

The conference organizers also made accommodations to address special needs in a space that was built for the able-bodied.

Want to learn more about the latest research in MS? Ask your questions in our research forum.

This event was a long time coming for writers with disabilities and chronic illness. Editors have historically turned away illness narratives, assuming their readers don’t care about illness, disability, or death.

The tide is changing — and yes, there’s still work to be done, but this is a good start, and the social climate is ripe for it.

One significant takeaway from the conference for me was the discovery of the different kinds of legal protections for the disabled beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Disability laws — at a glance

You’ve heard of the ADA, but are you aware of the span of its reach?

I’ve never considered myself “disabled” because I don’t currently use a handicapped placard, sticker, or assistive device for my MS.

When I paid a visit to the DLC booth, I noted that living with MS, regardless of whether one qualifies for social security benefits, is still considered disabling from a legal standpoint.

The ADA enacts legal language defining a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”

This broad umbrella covers my MS peers and me, even when we don’t outwardly claim the label.

Following are summaries of the various legal protections we can access as people with MS, as outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantees equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, state and local government services, and telecommunications.”

Rehabilitation Act

This law “authorizes funding for various disability-related purposes and activities, including state vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs, independent living programs, training and research, and the work of the National Council on Disability.”

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)

The WIOA “consolidates federal job training and employment programs, including employment and training services.”

It also provides for “Vocational Rehabilitation programs for individuals with disabilities administered by the Department of Education (DoED).”

Additionally, WIOA’s Section 188 “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities who apply for, participate in or are employees of any program or organization that receives federal financial assistance under WIOA or that provides programs/activities as part of the One-Stop system.”

Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA)

Under this law, employers who have federal contracts or subcontracts are required to “provide equal employment opportunities for certain veterans with disabilities.”

Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA)

This act, covering most federal agencies, enforces specific rules “designed to promote fairness in federal personnel actions and prohibit discrimination against applicants and employees with disabilities.”

Applying these federal protections

Disability law carries its weight in the areas of employment and civil rights. The ODEP offers a useful checklist to help you determine which of these laws applies to you.

You may also wish to visit these sources to learn how these laws protect you.

Are you still navigating the maze of disability laws, benefits, and applications? Have you found a way through that you’d like to share? Post in the comments below or at the original “Have you ever been discriminated against due to your disability?forum entry.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Leslie Willis avatar

Leslie Willis

Regarding Disability, there is a difference applying for disability whether you have a Progressive form of MS or Relapsing-Remitting. I was preparing myself for a long battle to get disability benefits after I stop working. I am 61, diagnosed 10 years ago with PPMS that was later changed to Progressive MS with relapses. It took Social Security 10 days to approve my case. I did not use a lawyer. With progressive forms of MS, I believe that your age, how long ago you were diagnosed, and the type of job you have or whether you can be trained for another type of job if it's too physical. I told my MS doctor about my experience when I saw him yesterday. There is a waiting period to receive benefits. I applied in January so I will receive my first benefit in July that will be for the month of June. If you live in one of the very few states that have temporary disability benefits, you may be able to receive those right away. I'm lucky; RI has TDI so I can start receiving that until July when I will start receiving my disability. If you have a progressive form of MS and need to stop working, you should check into whether you qualify now. I should have stopped working a couple of years ago, but because I didn't realize that I could get disability without waiting a year or more, I worked longer then I should have.

Tamara Sellman avatar

Tamara Sellman

Thanks for sharing your experience! I think each and every disability experience is as widely varied as each and every MS case. I appreciate your insights as a person with PPMS; I'm sure they'll be helpful for others trying to unlock the maze that is the healthcare/disability system.



I had my first ms attack in 1982. I worked as a welder and millwright. My work required climbing, balance, handling heavy lifting devices, mobile industrial equipment operation, working in confined spaces, and exposure to extreme heat. In 2000 I was denied Social Security benefits twice. I had to pay a lawyer $4,000. and wait a total of 2 yrs. to get mt claim approved.

Tamara Sellman avatar

Tamara Sellman

Unfortunately, this story of disability and MS is far too common. Sorry you had to wait so long, it seems outrageous that yours wasn't an obvious approval, Gary

Su March avatar

Su March

I became ill in 1988. It took over 2 years for me to receive SSDI. First there was state disability then the SSDI process. In both cases I had hearings before an administrative law judge. I’ve kept a copy of every piece of paper that Social Security sent me. It was nightmare. I filled out forms and my friends filled out forms. I had to see the SSDI MD as part of the process. Last year SSDI wanted all my medical history for the last 2 years. Then there was the paper form. One question was Have you and your doctor talked about you going back to work. My response was We stopped talking about this many years ago. My advice is to have long term disability insurance because it may provide more money than SSDI. I was starting out in my field and had a low salary. Your income is related to what you receive from SSDI. I can’t stress this enough. Long term disability insurance would have made my life easier. Keep every piece of paper you receive and send to SSDI.
I was able to take advantage of the PASS program...program for achieving self sufficiency. Social Security paid for all expenses related to Grad School. I had help from an Independent Living organization. Without the help I would have been lost in the process. I’m financially poor and wonder what will happen to me in the future. I left where I was living to return to my hometown to help my Mom. A very difficult thing to do. I wish everyone a SSDI process that takes less time and requires less paperwork. Wishing everyone to feel as well as possible.

Tamara Sellman avatar

Tamara Sellman

Thank you for your insights, Su. I'm not sure I would have thought of long term disability insurance as an alternative. I too wish the SSDI process were less nightmarish and more supportive. Good luck to you, I loved hearing that you did the PASS program. I'm sharing the link here so others can learn more about it: I do believe work in whatever form (paid, volunteer, part time, full time, etc.) is truly one of the best things we can do to maintain our sense of purpose and self determination in the face of this disease.


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