Disability harassment is any form of speech or action that draws undue attention to a disability, either mental or physical. Harassment of the disabled is usually considered a different problem than discrimination against the disabled, although both are serious crimes. In the workplace, disability harassment is usually dealt with in a way that is similar to other forms of harassment and can result in legal action. Given the personal nature of harassment and differing comfort levels, it can be difficult to precisely delineate what constitutes disability harassment and what does not.
Typically, it is understood that disability harassment is behavior that points out a disability in a negative way. Making fun of someone on the basis of his or her disability, for instance, is a very clear example of harassment. Less obvious but equally serious harassment might include being patronizing, asking embarrassing questions, or focusing conversation on the disability. The problem with this definition of disability harassment is that the behaviors in question are often subtle and harassers may not know that they are making the disabled person uncomfortable. Likewise, a person who is mentally disabled may not know that he or she is being patronized or made fun of.
In order for a behavior to be considered harassment, the person who is the subject of the behaviors must usually object to the treatment. Many friendships involve joking about otherwise taboo subjects, which might include disabilities, race, or other protected classes. Also, people who are disabled might object to one form of harassment but not another. Typically, it is very difficult to prosecute someone for disability harassment unless the person who has acted in a harassing manner has been asked to stop the behavior.
It is important to recognize that there is a difference between harassment and discrimination. Problems like being unable to access a building or being passed over for a promotion due to one's disability are better considered discrimination. While both crimes are serious, harassment implies a sort of menace that need not necessarily be present in discrimination, as discrimination problems are usually due to lack of consideration or resources.
When disability harassment occurs, it is important to first follow any rules regarding the incident that relate to the place where it occurred. For instance, if the incident occurs at work or school, then taking the appropriate steps within the company or institution is typically advisable. If that is not an option, seeking the help of a lawyer is likely the best way to get justice after suffering harassment.