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Small Business Toolkit: Understand Disability

Enhance your understanding of disability and what it means in the workplace.

What exactly is a disability? While this is a great question, there are different definitions for different contexts. When it comes to employment, the definition included in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most relevant.


Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as walking, standing, speaking, or concentrating) including major bodily functions (such as functions of the immune system or digestive system).


Has a history of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission).


Is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn).

Physical and mobility disabilities
D/deaf or hard of hearing
Blind and/or low vision
Intellectual and/or developmental disabilities
Mental Health
Non-apparent disabilities

Disabilities can be defined in several ways, but often include:

  • Physical and mobility disabilities (e.g., spinal cord injuries)
  • D/deaf or hard of hearing
  • Blind or low vision
  • Mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • Neurodivergent people (e.g., autistic people, people with ADHD, and learning disabilities such as dyslexia)
  • Intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (e.g., Down Syndrome)
  • “Non-apparent” disabilities, sometimes called “invisible disabilities” (e.g., health conditions such as heart disease, lupus, cancer, substance use disorders, Long COVID).

The ADA protects "qualified individuals with disabilities," who can perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation.

The ADA applies to “covered employers,” or businesses with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, and some other organizations. However, state laws vary and may apply to businesses of any size. This resource can help you identify which state laws apply to your business.