Tool 4 - Defining Disability: Obvious and Non-Obvious Disabilities

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The Communication Tools to Support Disability Inclusion Toolkit includes 11 templates to help managers with disability inclusion:

What’s Tool 4 About?

The messages in this tool are designed to gently challenge attitudes managers and supervisors might hold about people with non-obvious disabilities. 

Research shows that individuals with non-obvious disabilities are particularly fearful of disclosing a disability, and they face significant barriers across HR processes.

Non-obvious disabilities are often seen as not being “real” disabilities. They are often subject to false perceptions or stigma, particularly in the case of mental illness. People with non-obvious disabilities are arguably the largest group of people covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Tips about the Tool 4 template:

  • Research shows that one type of non-obvious disability, mental illnesses, are one of the largest categories of ADA charges brought against employers today. Managers and supervisors at your workplace need to take this seriously.
  • Examine your company’s images and messages around disability. Do they only portray people with obvious disabilities (such as those using a wheelchair or a cane)? Or do they balance images of people with both obvious and non-obvious disabilities?

You can copy and paste the template text below into a word processor and customize it for your organization.

Defining Disability: Obvious and Non-Obvious Disabilities

What counts as a disability?

Disability can mean different things to different people. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This includes people with both obvious and non-obvious disabilities. At (COMPANY NAME), we don't treat people with non-obvious disabilities any differently than those with disabilities that are obvious. We hire, accommodate and develop people with disabilities whether or not their disabilities can be seen by others. If one of your employees asks for an accommodation, contact (COMPANY CONTACT INFORMATION) for guidance.

About non-obvious disabilities

Research suggests that it's likely that the majority of individuals with disabilities who have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have disabilities that are not obvious to others. These disabilities can include chronic illnesses (such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis), mental illnesses, seizure disorders or traumatic brain injuries. Too often, we judge people with non-obvious disabilities differently than we do those with disabilities that can be noticed by others. We might not believe they have a real disability—we might think they’re just faking it. We might be more likely to blame them for their disability, thinking that they should just toughen up. Because of these misperceptions, people with non-obvious disabilities are more likely to experience shame and stigma. Whether or not a disability can be noticed by others, at (COMPANY NAME), we treat people with disabilities with respect and support. As a manager, treat people the same whether or not their disability is obvious to others.

Want to learn more?

For more about this topic, visit or call the Northeast ADA Center at 800-949-4232.

If the above text pastes into Microsoft Word with unwanted gray shading, select the text and use the Paint Bucket tool to choose No Color for the fill. Or, when pasting, try choosing Edit > Paste Special > Formatted Text (RTF).


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