Hidden Disabilities in the work-place and how to request a reasonable accommodation.

Career Counseling Tutorial

Hidden Disabilities in the work-place and how to request a reasonable accommodation.


As a job coach, many of the individuals I work with come to me with what I call “hidden disabilities.” This simply means any passing observer would not know that this person has a disability that affects their quality of life. This type of passive observation, on the whole, is not an issue. It can become an issue when applying for employment, and when an accommodation is needed to perform the job.
What is a reasonable accommodation? It is fairly self-explanatory, but essentially enables one who is wholly qualified for a position to perform ALL of the job functions that their disability may have otherwise prevented them from being able to do.
Many employers and individuals alike are unaware of the implications a cognitive disability diagnosis can have. They seem to be even less aware of myriad paths to take where one’s diagnosis with cognitive deficits, mental illness, or any Specific Learning Disability, impede employment prospects. Being aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act and rights of individuals granted there-in is fundamental knowledge to have as an adult with a disability, especially a “hidden” one at that, when seeking to find or sustain ongoing employment.
Many employers I have encountered seem to conflate ‘dis’ability with ‘in’ability, but that is a gross misconception.
If you have a disability that others cannot see and it is affecting your professional accomplishments, what should you do?

Sample Problem

Javier is a high functioning young man with ADHD and Autism. He works in a school cafeteria. He is fresh out of high school with very little work experience. Javier has memory problems and frequently forgets to clock in, and also cannot finish his job duties in the time allotted. He also forgets where supplies are stocked and located, and often stares off in the middle of a task. Javier did not disclose his disability to his employer and she is going to terminate him. What is Javier’s best course of action to maintain his job, and what, if any, rights does Javier have working for him?

Javier should work harder to keep up with his responsibilities

Javier should apologize to his supervisor for not disclosing his disability

Javier should begin to look for another job before he loses the one he has

Javier should speak privately with employer about disability


There is no right or wrong way to approach a supervisor about an accommodation. However, there are multiple online resources that will provide you with some opening lines as well as very practical solutions for working accommodations from memory problems to communication skills to emotional support.
In the example provided, Javier is on the verge of losing his job because his disability is interfering with his job performance.
Javier is ashamed, but he should not be. Shame has no place or role when it comes to working with a disability, and disclosure is %100 optional.
He should:
1) Request a private meeting with supervisor.
2) Be direct and honest about his disability and adverse effects on job performance.
3) Prepare to show a connection with symptoms of the disability and its direct cause on any negative job performance, with specific examples.
4) Listen to supervisor concerns, and have a hard copy of reasonable accommodations most relevant to particular situation.

The ADA provides protections against discrimination of people with disabilities, and for Javier’s case, an appropriate accommodation may be to use pictures instead of labels to easily identify supplies/inventory.
Other accommodations may include:
Use an alarm or beeper that indicates the time to begin/complete a task.
Use a voice activated recorder that will read aloud instructions for a task with multiple steps.
Provide “1,2,3” chart that lists job duties in order of when they need to be done.
List which tasks are priority, with either pictures or symbols, and color code from high to low.
This is just one example, with a very small fraction of the possible accommodations. Employers with 15 or more employees are required to provide a reasonable accommodation of up to $500 for an employee who requests one. Adaptive technology, such as speech recognition software, touch-screens, and others customized to fit individual needs exist and are assisting people at work more and more every day.
Do not be ashamed to ask for a reasonable accommodation if you feel you need one, you have the right to do so and the law is on your side!

About The Author

Reading And Writing Instructor For All Ages
I have an extensive background facilitating individualized, whole class, and small group lessons, and am also a senior studying Special Education. I work full-time as a job coach, instructing others on concepts of professionalism, writing resumes, and communication skills. My qualifications for th...
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