What is considered a disability in the workplace?

December 16, 2020
A person with a disability in the USA is twice as likely to be unemployed as someone without. This statistic is replicated to varying degrees in other countries around the world. The Covid-19 crisis has further compounded the issue with one million US workers with disabilities losing their job. A study by the US National Organisation on Disability (NOD) found 1 in 7 people with a disability lost their job as a result of the pandemic compared to 1 in 5 in the general population. 
Disability is a term that is used to refer to a broad range of impairments that makes it more difficult for a person with the challenge to do certain activities or interact with the world around them. Some disabilities are relatively mild while others have a major impact on a person's life. More of us have a disability than we may realise. The WHO estimate about 15% of the global population experience a disability of some kind, two to four percent are thought to experience significant difficulties functioning.

A disability in the workplace is any impairment that requires some accommodation by an employer to allow their employee to succeed in their role. Although disabilities are complex and varied in nature, many of them fall under a number of broad categories: 

1. Physical disabilities

This includes mobility, physiological or functional impairments that impact a person’s daily life. Physical disabilities can be present from birth or they may be acquired. The impact of a physical disability can fluctuate or may be constantly present. It may also be chronic, stable or progressive. Multiple Sclerosis or muscular dystrophy are just two examples of a disability that may be progressive and likely to fluctuate. Vision and hearing impairments are physical disabilities that can vary significantly from person to person. In many instances treatment for physical disabilities is limited and likely to focus on pain management, stabilising a condition or enhancing ability. 


2. Mental health disabilities 

The WHO estimate that one in four people globally will be affected by a mental health issue at some stage in their lives. Like physical disability mental health conditions are varied in nature and duration. It is only in the last number of decades that we are beginning the long journey towards viewing mental health as another facet of human wellbeing.

Some of the most common mental health issues include mood disorders like depression, anxiety and eating disorders, and can be treatable. However, depending on location and socioeconomic factors treatment options may be limited. In recent times some employers are making treatment more accessible for employees through the provision of Employee Assistance Schemes

3. Acquired disability 

While many disabilities are present from birth others occur during a person’s lifetime. Accidents, injury or illness may leave an employee with an acquired disability. There is not a definitive list of acquired disabilities, but they can include:

Accident related:

  • Spinal injury
  • Head injury
  • Injury/loss of limbs 
  • Loss of hearing or vision

Illness/health related:

  • Arthritis
  • Mental illness
  • Stress
  • Post heart attack/stroke
  • Epilepsy
  • Diabetes

They can be both seen or unseen and may require varying degrees of accommodation within the workplace. 


4. Unseen disabilities

An unseen disability is a condition that cannot be seen on the outside but they still challenge the person impacted. Examples of an unseen or invisible disability include chronic pain conditions, fatigue, epilepsy or diabetes. Like all other disabilities, having a condition like this does not mean a person is disabled, they just need to manage work and life differently to those who do not.  

There are many ways in which your business can create a disability friendly workplace so that people with disabilities have the opportunity to use their skills and abilities to help your company reach its goals.   

If your business sends employees on international assignment, protect their health and wellbeing with international health insurance including our expat assistance programme.