DOL Fact Sheets
Accommodating Employees with Hidden Disabilities
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “disability” as an impairment that “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.” Although some disabilities, such as inability to walk, missing or impaired limbs or severely impaired vision, are easy to observe, many disabilities are not. Some examples of “hidden” disabilities are learning disabilities, mental illness, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis, mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, AIDS and asthma. Many people do not believe that hidden disabilities are bona fide disabilities needing accommodation. Hidden disabilities can result in functional limitations which substantially limit one or more of the major life activities, just like those which are visible. Accommodating hidden disabilities can keep valued employees on the job and open doors for new employees.
The ADA requires that reasonable accommodation be provided, if necessary, for all impairments that meet the definition of “disability,” whether hidden or visible. Reasonable accommodations must be determined on a case-by-case basis to ensure effective accommodations which will meet the needs of the employee and the employer. Accommodations can range from making existing facilities accessible for wheelchair users to job restructuring, acquiring or modifying equipment, developing flexible work schedules or modifying task protocols.
Accommodating qualified employees with disabilities sets up a win-win situation: employers gain a qualified, stable, diverse workforce; people with disabilities get jobs; and society saves money that previously funded public benefits and services for people with disabilities.
Listed below are examples of accommodations worked out through discussions between employees with disabilities and employers, in consultation with the Office of Disability Employment Policy's Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN is a toll-free service which provides advice to businesses and individuals on workplace accommodations and the employment provisions of the ADA. JAN can be reached by calling 800-526-7234 (V/TTY).
These are samples of accommodations that worked and do not represent the only possible solution to the accommodation situation. To receive guidance on specific accommodation questions, talk with the employee and give JAN a call.
Situation: A bowling alley worker with mental retardation and bi-manual motor and finger dexterity problems was having difficulty properly wiping the bowling shoes that had been returned by customers.
Solution: A local job coach service provider fabricated a device that allowed the individual to roll the shoes in front of a brush rather than run a brush over the shoes. Cost: no cost as scraps of wood that were left over from other projects were used to make the device.
Situation: A high school guidance counselor with attention deficit disorder was having difficulty concentrating due to the school noise.
Solution: The school replaced the bell on his phone with an electric light bulb device which lights up when the phone rings, sound-proofed his office and provided a floor fan for white noise. Cost: under $600.
Situation: A machine operator with arthritis had difficulty turning the machinery control switches.
Solution: The employer replaced the small machine tabs with larger cushioned knobs and provided the employee with non-slip dot gripping gloves which enabled him to grasp and turn the knobs more effectively and with less force. Cost: approximately $130.
Situation: A warehouse worker whose job involved maintaining and delivering supplies was having difficulty with the physical demands of his job due to fatigue from cancer treatment.
Solution: The employer provided the employee with a three-wheeled scooter to reduce walking. The employer also rearranged the layout of supplies in the warehouse to reduce climbing and reaching. Cost: $3,000.
Situation: Due to hot weather conditions, a worker with asthma was having difficulty working in an outside environment fueling airplanes and moving luggage.
Solution: The employer moved the individual to the midnight shift and to a position where the worker was both inside and outside the facility. Cost: $0.
Situation: A telephone consultant with traumatic brain injury was experiencing short-term memory loss and auditory discrimination problems which resulted in difficulties responding to telephone requests for information, entering information into her computer and following oral instructions.
Solution: The employer provided sound absorbing office partitions which reduced noise and distractions, and reprogrammed the telephone bell so that the employee could readily differentiate between her phone and others in the area. The employer added an anti-glare screen guard on the computer to reduce screen flicker and prevent dizziness and fatigue. Instructions, daily reminders of meetings and other scheduled activities were provided in writing. Cost: $345.
Situation: An office manager who had been treated for stress and depression was experiencing difficulty maintaining her concentration when trying to complete assignments and meet critical deadlines.
Solution: She discussed her performance problems with her supervisor. The employer implemented accommodations that allowed her to organize her time by scheduling “off” times during the week where she could work without interruptions. She was also placed on a flexible schedule that gave her more time for counseling and exercise. The supervisor trained the employee’s co-workers on stress management and provided the office manager information about the company’s employee assistance program. Cost: $0.
Situation: An insurance adjuster was allergic to rubber and the formaldehyde in the paper products used by his employer.
Solution: The employer provided the employee with cotton gloves for handling paper and switched to recycled, chlorine-free paper and soy-based ink products. Cost: paper and ink costs increased approximately $130 per year and the gloves cost $10.
Situation: A claims representative with lupus was sensitive to fluorescent light in his office and to the radiation emitted from his computer monitor.
Solution: The employer changed the overhead lights from fluorescent to broad-spectrum by using a special filter that fit onto the existing light fixture and provided the employee with a flicker-free monitor and a glare guard. Cost: approximately $1,065.
Situation: A part-time college instructor with Asperger’s Syndrome was experiencing auditory discrimination difficulties which prevented her from being able to make immediate decisions. This was causing problems for her during meetings and annual evaluations, and had prevented her from meeting time lines for projects.
Solution: The employee was permitted to take notes during staff meetings and to provide written responses to all attendees on the questions raised during the meeting within a time frame agreed upon by the meeting participants. The employee also received a copy of meeting agendas, annual evaluations and project expectations in advance of the face-to-face meetings and was thereby able to ask questions or provide follow-up responses in writing. Cost: $0.
Situation: A machine operator with HIV was experiencing difficulties remembering the steps involved in changing a part on his machine.
Solution: The employer provided the employee with a step-by-step check list and written instructions on how to change the part. Cost: $0.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disabilitiy Employment Policy, July 2000