The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities
Two carpenters look over a plan.

What Is Disability?

Disability covers many conditions, both visible and invisible

What is a disability?

When people think of disability, they often think only of people who have some visible difference in how they face the world, but the reality is that many people—including your customers, employees, and applicants—have disabilities that you can’t see. Disabilities that aren’t visible include things like multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, diabetes, seizure disorder, depression, recovery from addiction, and many others.

Think about it

Panel #1 Small Companies and the ADA: Small business owner: ‘I just read that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to small companies. But, no one here uses a wheelchair or is blind…’ Supporting text: The employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to all businesses with 15 or more employees. Panel #2 Disability Under the ADA: Someone in an HR Role: ‘Actually, 20% of the American population has a disability. Many disabilities you can’t even see. Conditions like hearing impairments, depression and cancer may be disabilities under the ADA.’ Supporting text: Under the ADA if an employee has an ongoing or serious medical/health condition that affects how their body works or the way they do their job, they might have a disability. Panel #3 Covered Employees: Small business owner (thought bubble): ‘Huh… Tom has a slipped disc, Silva has low vision, and Mateo deals with anxiety’ ‘These could all be disabilities under the ADA!!!’ Supporting text: In order to benefit from the protection of the ADA, an employee must disclose they have a disability to their employer.

Understanding disability: Implications for small business

Since disability may be more common than some small employers initially thought, the comic above is a reminder of the kinds of medical conditions or health concerns that might be a disability at work. When a health conditions is actually a disability, the applicant or employee has rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the employer has some non-discrimination responsibilities.[1]

Who is protected by the ADA?

The definition of disability that most often applies to a small business is the one given in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In order to be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as:

“A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.”[2]

Generally, the impairment must be expected to last at least several months to be considered a disability under the ADA. The ADA also offers protections for people who have a record of a disability (i.e. a history of hospitalizations for a health or medical concern) and people who are “regarded as” having a disability. In this case, coverage is triggered when someone is treated as though they have a disability that impacts their ability to do their job (i.e. someone who has a facial disfigurement that does not impact their functioning, but is treated as such).

Additional considerations for ADA protection

Two women in an office lounge area sit in comfortable chairs face each other and talk intentlyIn addition to having a disability under the ADA, an individual must also be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. Lastly, they must satisfy the job requirements (meaning the education, experience, skills, licenses, and other qualifications) that the employer defines as necessary to perform the job well.[3]

Not just a medical diagnosis

It’s important to know that the ADA definition of disability is not based solely on a person’s diagnosis. Rather, it’s based on how much their condition impacts everyday functions. If the disability impacts things like a person’s ability to walk or to sense the world around them, or it impacts the way that their body functions (among other things), they likely have a disability.

What’s in a label?

It is dangerous to assume that if you know a person’s diagnosis or the label assigned to their disability, you know the impact of that condition on their life. Different people can have the same diagnosis or condition but experience it in different ways.

If and when a person requests to do something differently at work (asks for an accommodation), you can talk to them about how their label might impact their work. In the meantime, assume the person will let you know if they need help or a change on the job.

What about mental health conditions?

Young office workers sit in a row while listening to a presentation. The have serious expressions on their faces.Mental health conditions may sometimes impact people’s ability to engage with the world. Nearly 47 million people in the United States have a mental impairment,[4] such as depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorder. And many of them have a disability as defined by the ADA.

Although mental health conditions are very common, there is a great deal of shame and misperception associated with mental health diagnoses. Fear of discrimination is common among people with mental health conditions. However, quite often, simple accommodations can mean keeping a job and thriving in the workplace.

Beyond a person’s current disability

The ADA definition of disability (and its protections against discrimination) goes beyond a person’s current disability. It includes people who don’t have a disability now, but who have a record or history of a disability, such as cancer or substance addiction. It also includes people who have experienced discrimination because an employer believes they have a disability, even if they don’t. Finally, it includes people who have an association with a person with a disability, such as a child or spouse.

About veterans

Two people in an office setting converse. The focus is on the man at the right side of the image - he looks alert and physically fit.What “counts” as a disability for veteran? The answer is, “It depends.” Several different laws and programs cover the rights of veterans in the workplace. Each one uses a somewhat different definition of disability. For example, the definition of disability used to determine whether a veteran is entitled to disability compensation is not the same as the ADA definition of disability.[5] Also, employers who are federal contractors must track the number of “disabled veterans” among their applicants, hires, and employees. Here, disability refers only to service-connected disabilities.

One of the largest diversity populations in our country today

With 54 million people, disability is one of the largest diversity populations in our country today. They are your community members, your applicants, your customers, and your employees.

Did you know? About 1 in 5 Americans is considered a person with a disability.

Service and support

Small businesses make up the backbone of many communities. As a small business, it’s important to understand that people with disabilities are not only found in your community, but are also your customers, applicants, and employees. It’s nothing to worry about, it just means that you have to do the work to ensure that you understand what’s necessary for your business to provide good service and support to the whole community.


[1] US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2002). The ADA: Questions and answers.

[2] (2019). Introduction to the ADA. In Information and technical assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.

[3] US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The ADA: Your responsibilities as an employer.

[4] National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Mental Illness.

[5] Ask Vetsfirst. (2017). How disability is defined in different contexts. In Veterans employment and education.