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illness & disability

Disability at Work: How to Cope with Challenges and Thrive

Working with a disability can present many different physical and mental challenges. These tips can help you adapt to new circumstances, overcome workplace obstacles, and enjoy a fulfilling career.

Businessman sitting in wheelchair

Challenges in the workplace if you have a disability

Disabilities can range from physical conditions that affect mobility to sensory impairments and neurodevelopmental disorders. Whether you were born with a disability or your condition is a recent development, you might be frustrated to find that the workplace is not always willing to accommodate your unique needs.

People with disabilities tend to have a harder time finding jobs than their peers. For example, in the United States, only about 19 percent of Americans with a disability were employed in 2021. This low percentage is due to the barriers that people with disabilities often face in the workplace, including:

Anxiety or lack of confidence. Self-doubt may keep you from pursuing new opportunities or returning to a familiar job.

Difficulty adapting to new limitations. A new disability may slow you down as you learn new ways to handle tasks. For instance, you might need time to learn how to use assistive technology, such as speech-to-text devices.

Difficulty finding new job opportunities. You might have a hard time finding inclusive workplaces or a job that aligns with your strengths.

Physical barriers. You might encounter environments that aren’t suited to your physical needs, such as a building with inadequate wheelchair accessibility.

Inflexible work patterns. Strict work hours or policies about taking breaks can make it difficult for you to focus on your physical or mental needs while on the job.

Attitudes of employers and coworkers. Social stigmas surrounding your disability can be discouraging. Employers and coworkers might underestimate your abilities, misunderstand you, or discriminate against you.

Some of these barriers may seem so daunting that you consider giving up on the idea of employment altogether. However, for many people, work offers a sense of daily purpose and an opportunity for social interaction. A regular job can help give your days structure and provide you a greater sense of financial dependence. Without those benefits, you might experience a decline in physical and emotional well-being.

Whatever your disability, there are various strategies that can make it easier for you to find and maintain a fulfilling job that’s right for you. Self-knowledge, patience, and a willingness to advocate for yourself are keys to finding satisfaction in the workplace.

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Coping with disability at work tip 1: Build your self-confidence

Not every obstacle is external. You might feel self-conscious about your disability or question your worth and abilities in the workforce. The following steps can help you build up your confidence and recognize your worth to potential employers.

Accept your disability. If your disability has recently developed, it’s healthy to take time to grieve your loss. Expect to go through a roller coaster of emotions, and don’t feel the need to suppress or ignore those feelings. However, try not to fixate on what life or work would be like it if things were different. Aim to move toward accepting the present and adapting to whatever lies ahead.

[Read: Living Well with a Disability]

Watch or read stories about people with the same disability as you. You’ll find likely find that many people living with disabilities are able to not just adapt, but thrive and succeed in society. Let their stories serve as inspiration when you’re feeling down.

Manage stress levels. Research shows that if you’re struggling with low self-esteem, you might be more susceptible to stress. Prioritize stress-reducing habits:

  • Get between seven and nine hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Make time for enjoying hobbies and socializing with friends and family.
  • Eat a nutritious diet that leaves you feeling energized.
  • Practice relaxation techniques to help you weather stressful workdays and give your self-esteem a boost. Try deep breathing, visualization, mindfulness meditation, or self-massage.

Understand your disability. Self-knowledge can be empowering. Learn as much as you can about your disability. How does the condition usually progress? What are common ways that people cope with symptoms or reduce the risk of complications? Answering questions like these can also prepare you for communicating your needs with your employer.

Embrace assistive devices. From hearing aids and canes to text-to-speech devices and memory aids, all kinds of tools exist to make life easier for someone with a disability. If there’s a tool that makes your life easier, don’t feel ashamed to use it in public or at work. Know that these tools don’t define you or make you any less worthy of respect.

List your strengths. You might feel tempted to obsess over your disability and the limitations it brings. But remember that you still have strengths as well. Write them down, especially ones that relate to work. Perhaps your mobility is more limited than it used to be, but you have strong knowledge of your field. Maybe you struggle with social skills but excel at tasks that involve a high degree of focus. Review your list of strengths when you’re job hunting or need a boost in confidence.

Stay active. Exercise is an effective way to manage work stress and boost your confidence. If you’re still adapting to your disability, you might have a hard time imagining how you can stay active. It’s true that, depending on your condition, you might have to get creative when it comes to physical activity. However, you can still find cardiovascular, strength training, and flexibility exercises that will work for you.

[Read: How to Exercise with Limited Mobility]

Tip 2: Be adaptable when you return to work

If you’re returning to a job after time off, don’t expect things to be exactly the same as when you left. You might have to deal with new obstacles and frustrations, but a willingness to adapt and find support can help you thrive.

Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help or new accommodations. You might not be able to carry out the same tasks that you used to. Maybe you can’t stand behind a counter for a prolonged period of time or move around items as quickly as you used to. Seek accommodations that increase your comfort and productivity. You can even talk to your employer about other roles you might be better suited for.

Reassess your goals. Part of adapting may also include readjusting your ambitions. Maybe your disability slows you down or limits your productivity. Or maybe you need to learn new ways to navigate familiar tasks. Be patient with yourself and stay realistic when setting goals. Reassure yourself that you’re making progress and carrying out important tasks.

Rely on existing connections. If you already have colleagues you consider friends, turn to them for support. You might want to talk to them about your condition or simply count on them for a little levity. Your interactions with them can be a source of comfort and help ease you back into work.

Tip 3: Search for new work

If you’re new to the workforce or you can’t return to your old role, you’ll need to dedicate some time to job hunting. Ask yourself the following questions as you try to identify a suitable job.

What are your strengths and weaknesses? Look for jobs that best match your strengths and avoid jobs that put emphasis on your weaknesses. For example, if you have a hearing impairment or social anxiety, a job that involves constantly talking to customers will likely be difficult. If you have mobility issues, consider whether the position will require you to be on your feet or lifting items for long periods.

Are you willing to spend more time in school? Certain career paths come with strict educational requirements. If you need flexibility, opportunities such as virtual classes might offer a path forward. You might also find programs specifically designed to offer training opportunities for people with disabilities.

Do you want a flexible schedule or work-from-home benefits? Working from home can give you the freedom to arrange your workspace and schedule as needed. Consider which fields and jobs might afford this type of accommodation.

What kind of environment is best for you? For example, if you have a sensory disorder, loud and busy workplaces might be overwhelming. Loud spaces might also be challenging for people with hearing issues. Jobs in quieter, more controlled spaces will likely be more comfortable.

Tip 4: Advocate for your needs

Disclosing your disability is a personal choice. So, if it feels unnecessary to give that information to an employer, you’re free to keep it to yourself. However, if you’re going to need accommodations, it’s best to be upfront about your disability.

Accommodations can be any tool or procedural change that helps you overcome physical barriers or work patterns that don’t suit your needs. Accommodations aren’t just for current employees. You can sometimes ask for accommodations during the interview process as well.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Reserved parking for people with mobility issues.
  • Braille materials to accommodate workers who are blind.
  • Flexible start and end times.
  • Noise-canceling devices to minimize auditory distractions.
  • Altered office layout to accommodate wheelchairs or other assistive devices.
  • Videos with captions or visual aids to accommodate difficulty hearing.
  • Written step-by-step instructions to accommodate people with memory issues.
  • One-on-one meetings for workers with learning disabilities or anxiety.

Talking to an employer about accommodations

It’s understandable if you feel hesitant about talking to your employer about your disability or asking for accommodations. You may feel that you’ll be viewed in a negative way, that your career will be hampered, or you’ll even be bullied or harassed. But remember that you’re not alone. According to the CDC, one in four adults in the U.S. has a disability that impacts their work life. Therefore, the likelihood is that many companies will already be familiar with making accommodations for employees.

To help things progress smoothly, keep the following tips in mind as you approach your employer:

Be mindful of your timing. You want to make sure your boss isn’t distracted during this important conversation. So, rather than opening a dialogue while work is hectic, wait until things have quietened down. For example, consider scheduling a one-on-one meeting for the end of the week.

Stay focused. It might be tempting to fill your employer in on all the personal details surrounding your disability. Or maybe you’re not sure how much to divulge. A good rule of thumb is to keep the conversation centered on your work performance. What factors are affecting your performance? And how can those obstacles be addressed?

Be specific about how the accommodation can help you work to the best of your ability. For example, “If I can wear noise-canceling headphones, I can focus on work without experiencing sensory problems.”

Get the agreement in writing. Recording the details of agreed upon accommodations can be useful if disagreements or other issues arise later.

Know who to talk to. In many cases, you might want to let your supervisor or HR department know about your disability but not disclose the information to coworkers. Be clear about how private you want to keep the information.

Tip 5: Know how to handle unfair treatment in the workplace

Coworkers or supervisors might underestimate you, treat you too delicately, or even seem cold or awkward. You can’t control the attitudes and opinions of others. But you can take steps to improve social relations in the workplace.

Speak out about your condition and needs when necessary. Stigmas around disabilities are often the result of people misunderstanding or being ignorant of a condition. Talking about your disability might help others get to know you better. For example, if you have autism and difficulty reading nonverbal cues, you could let your coworkers know. Again, only disclose information if you’re comfortable doing so.

[Read: Autism at Work]

Get to know your coworkers. Find common ground in interests, hobbies, and life experiences. Coworkers will likely begin to see past your disability and understand that your differences aren’t so significant.

Dealing with discrimination

Discrimination is when you’re treated less favorably because of your disability. Discriminatory acts in the workplace can be intentional or unintentional, and, depending on where you live, the behavior may be illegal. Some examples of discrimination against people with disabilities include:

  • Your coworkers harass you.
  • You’re fired, demoted, or denied a job or promotion based on disability.
  • Your employer refuses to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate your needs.

What should you do if you experience discrimination at work? That depends on the situation and the people involved.

Was it possibly an accident? Consider talking to the person about the incident. They might apologize and correct their behavior going forward.

Did it come from a coworker? Reach out to your employer or HR department and let them know about the incident. They can take steps to help, such as reassigning the coworker to a different shift.

Is it severe or part of a pattern of behavior? If your employer or HR representative fails to address the issue (or if your employer is discriminating against you), you may need to pursue a legal solution. Research your legal rights and ways to file a formal complaint. For example, in the United States, you can reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Dealing with bullies

Research shows that employees with disabilities are more likely to be bullied at work. Bullying can take on many forms, including verbal insults, social exclusion, cyberbullying, and work sabotage. Being bullied can have long-term effects on your mind and body. It’s important to speak out, record and report the events, and practice self-care.

To learn more, see: Bullying at Work.

How employers can be more accommodating

As an employer, there’s a lot you can to ensure workers with disabilities feel comfortable and empowered in the workplace. They have a lot to offer your business, but it’s up to you to create an environment in which everyone can thrive.

Learn more about disabilities

Take the time to research information about your employee’s condition. This can be especially useful if the employer has a commonly misunderstood disability, such as autism or ADHD.

If the employee is comfortable answering questions about their condition, they might also be an excellent source of information. However, don’t push the issue or make them feel like it’s their duty to educate you.

If they’re willing to talk about the subject, be respectful during your conversation and try to avoid stereotyping. Remember that we’re all individuals and not everyone with a specific disability will necessarily have the same experiences or perspectives.

Identify employee strengths

Whether or not they live with a disability, all of your employees have unique strengths and weaknesses. Take note of each employee’s skillset and steer them toward tasks that best utilize those skills. This can help workers—particularly workers with disabilities—gain confidence and become more productive.

If an employee working a stocking position, for example, has great social skills but seems to be having problems with mobility, they may be better suited in a customer-facing role, such as a cashier. Or a worker who is extremely organized but doesn’t have strong verbal skills may work better in a behind-the-scenes role where they can work without interruptions.

Make reasonable accommodations

Depending on their disability, be prepared to make reasonable accommodations for employees and potential employees who are in the interview process. In some places, it’s even a legal requirement for companies to do so.

Some employees might formally ask for these accommodations in writing, but in many cases they may just bring up the subject in conversation. Make sure you get the specific details surrounding the accommodation. For example, how much space do they need for their wheelchair? How flexible will their hours be? What kind of adaptive software and tech do they need in the office?

If an employer needs to work from home, what kind of laptop and other equipment will they need? Listen carefully to the request and take notes if necessary.

Assess your workplace culture

Aside from physical accommodations, you’ll also want to make sure the workplace culture and policies are suitable for people with disabilities. This can involve taking a closer look at rules, resources, and attitudes in the workplace.

Start by considering the workplace policies and resources. Are flexible hours or work-from-home opportunities available? Certain tasks are bound to be time-sensitive or require an on-site presence, but is there room for more flexibility outside of those tasks? What resources, if any, do you have for employees with disabilities? Enlist the aid of job coaches if workers need guidance.

Think about how personal interactions make the workplace more or less stressful for someone with a disability. Have you received complaints about bullying at work? Or are employees respectful and supportive of one another? Adopt a zero-tolerance stance toward harassment and model the type of behavior you expect from your employees. Consider offering unconscious bias training programs for everyone in the office.

Listen. If you’re not sure what changes need to be made, just ask your employees. Hold regular meetings so they can voice their concerns. A tool that allows workers to offer anonymous feedback, such as a suggestion box or app, might also be helpful.

These steps won’t just make your business environment better for an employee with a disability. Everyone can benefit from a more inclusive and flexible workplace.

Author: Sheldon Reid.

    Get more help

    How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination – Legal steps if you’re being discriminated against at work. (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)

    Ticket to Work Program – Career development for Social Security disability beneficiaries in the U.S. (SSA.gov)

    Jobs and Education for People with Disabilities – Employment and education resources in the U.S. (USA.gov)

    Disability rights – Disability rights in the UK. (Gov.uk)

    Working when living with a disability – Government programs for people working with disabilities. (Government of Canada)

    Know your rights: Disability discrimination – Resources for people with disabilities (Australian Human Rights Commission)

    Last updated: August 30, 2022