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Disabilities at work: A guide to understanding disability inclusion

October 26, 2021 - 13 min read


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What is a disability?

What is the ADA and how does it work?

What is disability inclusion?


What can employees do to defend themselves against discrimination?

5 benefits of disability inclusion for companies

What is a disability?

The term “disability” is a necessarily broad one, which encompasses two definitions — a legal one and a medical one.

Medically speaking, disability typically requires a diagnosis.

Under the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, however, a disability is any mental health or physical condition that causes significant difficulty when performing major life activities. The definition of daily life activities often varies slightly, but typically includes eating, drinking, using the bathroom, walking, reading, and communicating.

The law extends to learning disabilities as well. It also covers bodily functions, like circulation, respiration, immune, neurological, and reproductive functioning. 

What is the ADA and how does it work?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, known commonly as the ADA, is a human and civil rights law designed to prevent discrimination, ostracism, and undue difficulty on people with disabilities. It establishes legal rights for any individual who have any type of disability — seen or unseen — that limits their ability to perform a major life activity.

While it is often a subject of discussion in the workplace, the provisions of the ADA extend to other areas of life, such as housing, transportation, and public facilities. 

In the workplace, qualified individuals — both employees and jobseekers — are protected from discrimination. A qualified individual is someone who is able to perform the essential functions of the job.

It is illegal to take adverse action against qualified job candidates or employees. If a disabled person is otherwise capable of performing the duties of the job, employers can’t refuse to hire the candidate, pay them unfairly, or deny reasonable accommodation. Doing so is considered disability discrimination, and it can occur at any stage of the hiring process. 

All companies with at least 15 employees are bound to follow the regulations of the ADA. Disability is also protected under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which specifically prohibits discrimination in federal employment.


What is "reasonable accommodation"?

Reasonable accommodation refers to any change that an employer, school, or other organization makes to allow a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job.

For example, a stool with a backrest might be a reasonable accommodation for a ticket taker at the theater who cannot stand for long periods of time. Regular, scheduled break times would be a reasonable accommodation for a worker who is a new mom and needs to pump breast milk for her infant. It could also be a reasonable accommodation for a man who is diabetic and needs to test often or eat frequent snacks.

The option to work remotely and attend meetings via video is a reasonable accommodation for someone with limited mobility or severe social anxiety. In school environments, providing additional time to complete a test or other work is an accepted accommodation that may or may not be translatable into the work environment.

These changes might include adjustments to the way a job is done, the work environment, provided equipment, work schedules, or to the job description itself. Sometimes, employers can be creative about crafting jobs to split responsibilities or re-envision certain secondary tasks to make them less prohibitive for an employee with a disability.

As long as the change doesn’t create a threat to anyone in the workplace or an undue hardship on the employer, the ADA considers the accommodation to be reasonable.


Which employees are covered by the ADA?

It’s impossible to create an exhaustive list of disabilities and medical conditions that are covered under the ADA. Doing so would violate the spirit of the law, which is intended to ensure that people who want and need to work are supported in doing so. However, if you or your employees meet any of the following criteria, regardless of the specific condition, you are covered under the ADA:

An employee who has a disability

Someone who is currently undergoing medical treatment, has a condition (whether temporary or permanent), or otherwise has a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity, is covered.

An employee that has a history of disabilities or major diseases

Individuals who have previously been disabled, been on medical leave, or have a history of illness or impairment are protected under the ADA.

An employee who the employer regards as disabled

If an employer believes that an employee is disabled, and engages in discriminatory behavior against them as a result of that belief, that employee is protected under the ADA regardless of whether or not the employee is actually disabled.

What is disability inclusion?

Disability inclusion is about creating an inclusive workplace where people feel welcome and comfortable. People, regardless of physical ability, background, education, or any other distinguishing characteristic want to be seen, valued, and appreciated. A solid disability inclusion policy means creating support and accessibility for people with both visible and invisible disabilities. It also means educating and supporting managers to be more confident and empathetic as they create inclusive environments.


Generally speaking, any details about an employee’s medical history, conditions, or disability is considered private. The employer is bound by law to keep this information, as well as any documents or medical records that refer to a disability. Employers are also prohibited from disclosing that a workplace accommodation has been granted to an employee — or was requested by one. 

There are a few situations in which the ADA allows for an employer to disclose a disability or other relevant medical information. These include:

      • To the employee’s insurance company for insurance or workers’ compensation purposes
      • To first responders or first aid providers in order to ensure proper medical treatment or evacuation
      • To supervisors or managers who need to be aware of accommodations or restrictions as they relate to work
      • To government officials who are investigating ADA compliance or complaints

Finally, under the ADA, voluntary disclosure of a disability by an employee isn’t considered to be confidential. If someone reveals a disability in response to a general inquiry, like “Are you okay?” or “How are you?” and they aren’t requesting accommodation in that conversation, then the disclosure is considered voluntary.


What can employees do to defend themselves against discrimination?

First, and most importantly, if you have a disability you should familiarize yourself with your rights. Disability is a protected characteristic under federal and state law, and discrimination is illegal. If you need to file a workplace discrimination claim, you can do so with either your state department of labor or the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

How to file a discrimination complaint

1. Collect information

You’ll need to provide the name, address, and phone number of both the person being discriminated against and the business you’re filing the complaint against. You can file for yourself or as the witness to the act of discrimination. If there are other witnesses or people involved, you’ll want to also provide their name and contact information.

2. Document your experience

Your complaint will need to contain a brief account of the specific occurence, along with details such as time, date, and location.  

3. Submit your information

Submit your completed account of the incident to either your local EEOC office or your state labor office. You don’t need a special form or referral in order to submit your complaint. 

You can reach out to your state’s labor office here, or locate a local EEOC office here.

5 benefits of disability inclusion for companies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 25% of adults live with a cognitive, physical, or emotional disability. Of those disabilities, 96% are invisible. While employers don’t have to provide accommodations unless requested, statistics indicate that good policies make a difference for a significant portion of your workforce. 

If you are a person with a disability, the weight of self-advocacy can feel overwhelming. Although employees are under no obligation to disclose a disability to their employer, disclosure is a necessary prerequisite for requesting accommodation. Inclusive policies take the burden off of the employee, allowing them real choice and control over their privacy in the workplace.

1. Welcoming environment

People are social creatures, and we have an innate desire to want to fit in. If 96% of disabilities truly are invisible, that is a lot of potential exclusion. Because exclusion carries such a high social threat for people, we’re always on the lookout for subtle signs that we may not be welcome there. A lot of your workforce may be scanning the environment and reading, or misreading, signs that they don't belong, likely talent that you need and depend on. 

Make inclusion a priority — in action as well as in writing — to reinforce and promote inclusive behavior within your ranks.

2. Improves creativity, innovation, and productivity

All people have different learning styles — yet most classrooms, businesses, and learning environments are optimized around just one or two of them. Being creative, thoughtful, and inclusive in your approach to work and presenting information benefits everyone in your workplace. It sets the stage for them, in turn, to be more innovative and take more risks with how they get things done — increasing their sense of ownership and leading to potentially larger payoffs. 

3. Attract — and keep — talented employees

When your workplace struggles with creating a psychologically safe, inclusive culture, every employee is impacted — even those who aren’t directly involved. It is a workplace’s responsibility to be welcoming, engaging, and provide the resources a person needs to do their job well.

4. Supports the whole person at work

Have you ever gone to work when you’ve had a bad day, something on your mind, or just not been feeling well? A supportive environment can provide a respite from the day’s stress, while a toxic work culture can make it worse. 

5. Positions the company for long-term success

Thoughtful disability and accessibility policies are the right thing to do, both morally and legally. Adopting a laissez-faire attitude towards inclusion can open the company up to bad press and lawsuits. Good policies, however, impact far more than the day-to-day environment at work. They also establish the company’s commitment to inclusion, empowering them to attract and retain people who will want to stay and grow within their roles.

The bottom line

Disability inclusion policies aren’t a nice-to-have — they’re a must. With a significant portion of the workforce having a visible or invisible disability, overlooking these needs has a marked impact on a company’s culture and bottom line.

When you create an environment that defaults to openness and flexibility, it can be beneficial to everyone who needs to feel accepted. It extends an invitation to everyone who needs to have some flexibility to make their work and workspace their own, whether or not they have a disability. When you create a culture of inclusion, everyone benefits from feeling included.

While people with disabilities at work are under no obligation to disclose their condition, it benefits companies to accommodate their needs anyway. People shouldn’t have to fight to contribute to their jobs. Taking the initiative to create inclusive workplaces is a win for everyone.

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Published October 26, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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