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During the pandemic, employers have had different policies about wearing masks. A lot of people with disabilities have a higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19, and for some of them, vaccines may not work, or may not work as well. For them, requiring masks may be very important. For others, wearing a mask may be hard because of a disability. This handout answers questions people with disabilities might have about mask policies at work.
This handout is not about state and local laws that require distancing and masks. Instead, we are answering some of the questions we receive about disability laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and how they apply to mask policies in the workplace.
Employers requiring masks
Question: Can employers require their employees to wear masks?
Answer: Generally, yes, if the employer is a private company or the federal government. Masking may also be recommended by OSHA and the CDC, depending on the risks at a particular time, and in a particular job or workplace. But if the employer is a state or local government or agency, it may or may not be able to require masks, depending on federal law, or depending on the Governor’s current Executive Order.
Asking for a mask policy
Question: My employer does not have a mask policy, or does not enforce it. If I have a disability, can I ask for a mask requirement as a reasonable accommodation?
Answer: If your disability is a “risk factor” for COVID-19, you may be entitled to a reasonable workplace accommodation. It is possible that accommodations could include a mask policy for you and people who have contact with you. But other things may also be appropriate, like those suggested in Question 4 below. Generally, the employer can choose from among the various accommodations, as long as the choice is effective.
Entering the workplace without a mask
Question: I have a disability that prevents me from wearing a mask, or makes wearing one difficult. Do I have a right to enter my workplace without a mask?
Answer: Generally no, not if your employer can legally require a mask. That is because you may be putting yourself and others at risk. Instead, you should talk with your supervisor or Human Resources staff to come up with alternatives. See Question 4 below for some examples.
Options if you can’t wear a mask
Question: If my employer will not let me in without a mask, but I can’t wear one, what are some other things I could ask for?
Answer: There may be other things that could lower the risk of infection. You should talk to your employer about them. Possibilities might include teleworking, providing an office with a door that closes, moving your work area away from others, providing a portable filtration system, adjusting schedules to avoid unnecessary interactions, etc.
Asking for accommodations
Question: If I cannot wear a mask, how do I ask for accommodations from my employer?
Answer: You might start by looking at your employer’s handbook or policies on asking for an accommodation. Your request does not need to be in writing, or use a special form. But it often helps to use your employer’s own form for requesting an accommodation, if they have one. In your request, tell your employer what disability you have, what help or accommodations you need, and why.
For more information about reasonable accommodations, see our handout on Employment Discrimination, at questions 19-32. To create your own written accommodation request, use our Workplace Accommodation Request Tool.
Tips if you are deaf or hard-of-hearing
Question: I can wear a mask myself, but I am deaf or hard-of-hearing, and need to be able to read a person’s lips or facial expressions. How can I communicate with co-workers?
Answer: The National Association of the Deaf suggests writing notes back and forth, or using smartphone apps like BIG (iOS), Big Word (Android), and Cardzilla (iOS, Android). Other options may include asking others to use a clear mask or a face shield. Even if you normally use in-person interpreters, in some cases you might agree to try interacting remotely via Relay, or if in the same location, agreeing to video remote interpreter (VRI) services.
Employers asking about your disability
Question: If I ask for an accommodation, can my employer ask me for documentation to prove my disability or my inability to use a mask?
Answer: Generally, yes. But your employer should only ask questions that will help them understand your disability and how to accommodate it. If your disability and limitations are obvious, or already known to the employer, it may not need any further information. If the employer does not already know about your disability or your needs, it can ask for something from your own healthcare provider that is specific to you, your disability, and your needs.
Fake cards online
Question: I found a card online from the Department of Justice (DOJ) that says I do not have to wear a mask. Is that card good enough to show my employer?
Answer: No. That card is not from the DOJ, and it is a fake.
- Masks in stores: Do you have questions about mask policies in stores? If you do, check out our Mask Policies in Stores and Other Private Businesses handout.
- Disability discrimination: For more information about asking for accommodations, or your rights in the workplace, please see our Disability Discrimination at Work During COVID-19 handout.
- Vaccines and employment: If you have questions about vaccines in the workplace, see our COVID-19 Vaccines and Employment handout.
Last Updated/Reviewed: August 17, 2022
Publication Code: EM15
Disclaimer: Disability Rights Texas strives to update its materials on an annual basis, and this handout is based upon the law at the time it was written. The law changes frequently and is subject to various interpretations by different courts. Future changes in the law may make some information in this handout inaccurate.
The handout is not intended to and does not replace an attorney’s advice or assistance based on your particular situation.
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