Accommodating Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Invisible disabilities are those disabilities that cannot readily be seen like those that involve a cane or a wheelchair. The number of invisible disabilities is too great to list definitively, but here are a few examples:

  • Arthritis
  • Attention deficit disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Chronic dizziness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • Hearing impairment
  • Learning disabilities
  • Memory disorder
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Psychiatric disabilities—including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Traumatic brain injury

People with invisible disabilities may be reluctant to tell their employers about their disabilities, which can lead to misunderstandings. Employers wishing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), however, should be aware that while they are not required to accommodate an employee who does not acknowledge a disability, they are required to offer a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, including an invisible disability.

When a disability is not obvious, it may require documentation to support the requests of employees for accommodation. Employers should show consideration of employee requests for accommodation for invisible disabilities. Employees may be unaware that their condition is a disability and may not want to alert their employer to their condition. For this reason, employers may want to be proactive and ask an employee who is struggling if there is something they can do to help. An employee with PTSD, for example, may need a quiet place to work away from other employees. If an employer can accommodate such a need, it is best to do so. The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations.

What Is a Reasonable Accommodation?

The government defines a reasonable accommodation in this way:

A “reasonable accommodation” is any modification or adjustment to a job, the job application process, or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process, perform the essential functions of the job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.

This definition is very broad, allowing for many types of accommodation to be acceptable. Examples include: “A supermarket check-out clerk with AIDS had difficulty standing for long periods of time. Her employer provided her with a stool so that she could sit down at the cash register when necessary.” Another example: “A machine operator required time off from work during his hospitalization with AIDS-related pneumonia. He had already used up all his sick leave. His employer allowed him to take leave without pay.”

With the great number of invisible disabilities, a list of reasonable accommodations for them all would be impossible to quantify. Employers will need to work out reasonable accommodations on a case-by-case basis, taking care not to treat employees with similar conditions differently.

Making Reasonable Accommodations

An employee with a gastrointestinal disease may need to spend more time in the bathroom than a non-disabled employee. An employee with chronic pain may need to work more slowly than a non-disabled employee. Employers need to be creative with reasonable accommodations so that employees with invisible disabilities can participate in the workforce. As employees return to work after the COVID-19 lockdown, employers should be mindful of those with invisible disabilities and their fears of contracting the disease. Some invisible disabilities, for example an immune disorder, may make employees more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Accommodations may include social distancing, ultraviolet lights, and plexiglass barriers.

An employee with arthritis may need a special chair in which to work, while an employee with attention deficit disorder may need a workplace with fewer distractions. An employee with chronic dizziness may need a stool if their job would normally require standing up. An employee with chronic fatigue or cystic fibrosis may require more frequent rest breaks. An employee with chronic pain may need more time off for doctor visits. Diabetes may require time for injections or allowing an employee extra meal breaks. An employee with epilepsy may need to be excused from some job tasks that would be dangerous for someone with epilepsy to perform. An employee who is hearing impaired may benefit from coworkers’ learning some basic sign language. The list goes on. In many cases, the employee with an invisible disability may end up doing less work, or not working as quickly, as non-disabled employees. The ADA is clear, however, that reasonable accommodations be made for employees with disabilities.

The task of accommodating employees with invisible disabilities may begin by getting employees to acknowledge that they have a disability. Employees may be afraid of getting fired for having an invisible disability. Employers need to reassure such employees that they will not be fired if they acknowledge that they have an invisible disability. And, of course, employers should not fire or find ways to get an employee with an invisible disability to leave work. That would be a violation of the ADA.

Employees with invisible disabilities may feel left out of the workplace accommodations afforded to those with visible disabilities. Employers can reassure employees with invisible disabilities that they are not forgotten, and that their disabilities will be accommodated as well. The best way to do this is with actions that back up the reassurances. For an employee with depression, for example, it may be best to allow them time off to see a therapist.

The Cost of Invisible Disabilities

According to the Census Bureau, “In 2008, the federal government spent an estimated $357 billion dollars on programs for working-age people with disabilities, representing 12 percent of total federal outlays.” The government is committed to helping people with invisible disabilities lead productive lives. Businesses too should comply with the ADA and make reasonable accommodations to employees with invisible disabilities. This may affect the bottom line, but it will allow people with disabilities to participate in the workforce, bringing with it a richness of experience and knowledge that would otherwise go untapped.


In addition to the disabled people who use wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, there are disabled people whose disabilities are not readily apparent to the eye. These people make for good employees, with some reasonable accommodation. Employers should be mindful of the ADA’s requirement that reasonable accommodation be made for employees with invisible disabilities.

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