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

Scenario 1: The Olympian

A sales clerk in an outdoor store hold a pair of skisJennie recently applied for a job as a store manager at Bixby’s Outdoor Shop, a large retail store near a popular ski and recreation area. With several years of prior experience as a manager, great references, and a good knowledge of outdoor equipment, Jennie was confident that she was an excellent candidate for the job. The store owner also felt Jennie would be a good fit for the position because of her experience and skills. However, the owner knew that Jennie has a child with severe autism and was concerned that Jennie would be distracted and miss work because of this child.

Before the owner made his decision, he reached out to the ADA National Network to discuss the situation.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

The owner understood that the ADA National Network provides toll-free technical assistance around the ADA. When he called and explained his concerns, a technical assistance specialist explained that though Jennie doesn’t have a disability herself, she has rights under the ADA. Under the ADA, if she is truly the best qualified candidate and is passed over for the job, she is being discriminated against because of her association with someone with a disability—in this case, her child with autism. So, if the business owner decided not to hire Jennie for this reason, it could leave him open to an ADA charge of discrimination. Not only that, but this business owner would have also passed up an opportunity to hire a well-qualified, high performer who would’ve been an asset to the business. Also, Jennie was well-known in the adaptive sports community and could have reached out to a new customer segment as well as expanded the image of the business.

The takeaway

Help is only a phone call away! When you have questions about ADA implementation, call the ADA National Network at 800-949-4232. By seeking help and thinking through the problem, the owner realized that Jenny would be a great hire, and he avoiding setting himself up for a possible ADA charge.

Scenario 2: The unreal disability

A veterinary nurse holds a small dog who has a cast on one of his front legsFor the past 6 years, Mary has been a veterinary nurse at a Great Sky Clinic, a business that employs 37 people. She enjoys her work at Great Sky, but she has had a tough year. In addition to suddenly losing her brother, her marriage ended and now she’s struggling with being a single mother. At work, she has always been the one who cheered everyone else up, both human and animal. But over the past couple of months, she has felt constantly tired and can’t sleep well. She also feels hopeless and is withdrawn from others. In fact, she was recently diagnosed with moderate-severe depression. Her doctor prescribed medication and told her to find a therapist who could help her deal with her setbacks. As yet, her medications have not kicked in, and she is struggling to put up a good face at work.

Yesterday, her boss called her in for a meeting and Mary explained her situation and her diagnosis. Though her boss initially listened, he later said that he had setbacks too and she just needed to toughen up, like everyone else does. At this point, she feels like her only choice is to quit.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

Mary’s depression, though not immediately obvious to others, is a disability. Her boss, by dismissing her symptoms, is risking the loss of an employee who could be very hard to replace in their small town. Neither Mary nor her boss recognized that her depression was a “real” disability. And if she quits her job, her symptoms could worsen as her financial and career life take a nose dive.

These negative consequences are easier to avoid than either Mary or her boss realize. The first and most important step is to understand that Mary does not have a character flaw and does not just need a pep talk. She has a disability. And adjustments can be made so she can continue to work effectively with this disability.

Mary and her boss need to begin an interactive process to find accommodations that will work for her, given her impairment and her job functions. In her case, this could mean a temporarily reduced schedule, a different time schedule while she’s adjusting to her medications, or temporarily exchanging more stressful work tasks with another employee.

The takeaway

Mental illness (for example, depression) is not a character flaw or weakness. It is a real disability, even though it may not be immediately obvious to others. The first step in ensuring that employees can continue to work when they develop a disability is to recognize what counts as a disability and to set into motion those actions that are needed to optimize performance.

The scenarios, including all names, characters, and incidents portrayed on this page are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, or products is intended or should be inferred.