Nonvisible disabilities: How to accommodate workers’ limitations

By Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety   

Industry Manufacturing CCOHS manufacturing Safety

Despite growing awareness, workers can still feel misunderstood.


Conditions include learning disabilities, mental health PTSD and physical disorders. IMAGE: JEGAS RA –

One in five Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 has at least one disability, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability. That’s about 4 million adults who experience limitations, many of which are not immediately apparent to others.

Accommodating workers with nonvisible disabilities is a legal requirement, but it’s also good business practice. Most accommodations are not costly and lead to a positive return on investment with a productive, committed and engaged employee.

Nonvisible disabilities cover a range of limitations from chronic pain to cognitive, neurological and mental conditions. They include learning disabilities such as dyslexia, mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical disorders such as fibromyalgia and diabetes. These disabilities are severe enough to limit daily activities, including the ability to work. Workers may be reluctant to reach out, fearing they’ll be discriminated against or stigmatized.


At the federal level, discrimination is prohibited based on 13 grounds identified in Section 2 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, including genetic characteristics and disability. The provinces and territories have their own laws for conditions not federally regulated.

Employers have a duty to accommodate (case-by-case) employees who fall into these groups up to the point of undue hardship, taking into account health, safety and cost. If an employer does not know about an employee’s disability, the duty to accommodate does not apply. However, supporting workers with nonvisible disabilities makes good business sense. It helps reduce absenteeism, turnover, presenteeism and long-term disability rates, as well as other costs.

Planning for accommodation or a return to work resulting from nonvisible disabilities is based on similar guiding principles that apply to a physical injury. Focus on the functional abilities of the worker, not the symptoms of the injury or illness, or the causes.

When planning modifications to work or a return to work:

• consider recommendations from treating professionals;

• begin with tasks the employee agrees would be easiest to accomplish;

• gradually increase working hours over a period of time;

• allow flexible scheduling to attend medical appointments; and

• consider employee energy levels at various times of the day and schedule work accordingly.

Flexible scheduling

Some accommodations involve flexible scheduling that allows time off for medical appointments, helps the worker prioritize work and activities, and fits his/her energy and concentration levels. The workspace may need changing based on noise, space, light and other ergonomic factors that impact concentration and wellbeing. Does the worker have access to a private, quiet space if needed?

Additional job training may be needed for a worker with a learning disability. If social anxiety is an issue, help the worker prepare by providing advance notice of meetings, events and projects. Allow exemptions to workplace policies and rules if they make a positive difference for the worker. For example, a worker may be permitted to take naps if chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms would otherwise adversely affect job performance.

Additional tips for successful accommodation include:

  • Ensure policies and procedures are accommodation-friendly.
  • Base accommodations on fostering healthy social interaction rather than providing physical tools or aids.
  • Educate managers and workers on diversity and inclusion.
  • Consider wider organizational changes that prioritize a healthy workplace culture.
  • Review and evaluate programs regularly to look for areas of improvement.

Note, employers only need to be aware of the functional limitations and not the actual diagnosis.

A comprehensive accommodation plan should involve the worker, manager, human resources, any treating healthcare professionals and a union/professional association representative. Each participant has a shared responsibility.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton contributed this article. CCOHS provides information, training, education, management systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and the prevention of injury and illness in the workplace. Visit

This article appeared in the November-December 2020 print edition of PLANT Magazine.


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