Disability 101: Employment Policies and Etiquette


Employment Policies and Etiquette

Disabled man with a voice computer screenThe passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 marked a milestone in securing significant civil rights protections for people with disabilities. While previously enacted laws addressed various disability discrimination issues in a piecemeal fashion, the ADA is considered the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in U.S. history. The ADA ensures equal opportunity/nondiscrimination in employment and access to state and local government offices and services, including public education, public transportation, public accommodations (businesses open to the public) and telecommunications.

In examining the 30-year ADA-era, evidence suggests that people with disabilities have not experience the increases in access to employment and the opportunities intended by the landmark legislation. Employment for people with disabilities continues to lag significantly behind employment rates for people without disabilities. States, with the support of the business community, have been active in their policy efforts to bridge the employment gap in both public and private sectors. NCSL partnered with the State Exchange on Employment and Disability to convene a national task force of policymakers and other stakeholders to create a policy roadmap to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The resulting Work Matters report outlines dozens of policy options for states to consider.  

Introduction to Disability and Employment

In the United States, according to 2018 data from the American Community Survey, roughly 40.6 million individuals identify as having a disability that impacts a major life activity. This means 12.6 percent of the population, or one person in eight, has a substantial disability. Of working-age (21-64) non-institutionalized Americans, 10.4 percent report having a disability that seriously impacts a major life activity, including their ability to work. Thus, when considering disability employment policy, a more useful statistic is the following: Roughly 19.3 million, or one in 10, working-age (21-64) non-institutionalized Americans have a substantial disability that may impact their ability to work.

What is Disability

For the purposes of legal status and protections through the ADA, disability is understood broadly to be any physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; a history of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities are any physical or mental function that is generally deemed essential to an individual’s day-to-day routine. They involve physical movement, communication, cognitive processes such as performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating and walking.  Major bodily functions such as those of the immune, circulatory and respiratory systems, are also considered major life activities. 

The ADA also covers a person who does not currently have an impairment, but has a record or history of one, such as remission from cancer. In addition, it covers an individual who faces discrimination because they are regarded as having a disability. For example, this provision covers an individual who is perceived to have a cognitive disability even though he does not. 

People First Language and Disability

People first language is designed to place the individual’s personhood before his or her disability. Using people first language conveys the understanding that people are more than their disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding language that implies that people with disabilities have limitations, deserve pity or are only their disability. The following are examples of people first language:

Say... Don't Say...

A person who has a disability

A person without a disability

A person who uses a wheelchair      

A person is deaf  

The disabled, the handicapped

A normal person, a healthy person

A person who is confined to a wheelchair

A person who suffers a hearing loss


According to the CDC, people first language is about respecting people with disabilities. If it is unknown how someone prefers to talk about their disability, it is best to use people first language.


Why Does Employment Matter?

Gainful employment is a cornerstone of the American experience. It can bring financial security and indepence to an individual and their family. Employment also provides a number of mental and physical health benefits. Many people with disabilities face barriers to the labor market, including discrimination, proper workpace accommodations, accessible transportation, quality education or disability-exclusive policies.   

The ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on disability by employers. The term employer includes public (state and local) and private businesses that have 15 or more employees. Employers must maintain nondiscriminatory employment practices for applicants and current employees with disabilities. Additionally, the ADA requires employers to provide, and pay for, reasonable workplace accommodations to workers with disabilities who require them to perform their job duties. 

Disabled man working at desk.

While the ADA laid an important foundation for inclusion in the workforce, state legislatures can play a critical role in further enhancing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. NCSL has created a number resources to help states explore disability-inclusive employment policy options. Here are some of the highlights:

NCSL Disability-Inclusive Employment Resources:


Relevant Federal and State Policies

Federal Policy

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (as amended in 2008)

Girl in wheelchair with a dog.The ADA is a landmark civil rights act for people with disabilities, ensuring equal opportunity/nondiscrimination on the basis of disability. Title I covers employment discrimination (except in the federal sector). Title II covers services, programs and activities of a state or local public entity, including public transportation and education. Title III covers public accommodations (e.g., private entities doing business with the public). Title IV covers Telecommunication Relay Services. The 2008 ADA Amendments Act clarified the definition of disability. 

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended in 1986, 1994)

Title V of the Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act) includes civil rights protections for people with disabilities. Section 501 includes protections against discrimination and affirmative action requirements applicable to federal departments and agencies. Section 503 includes protections against discrimination and affirmative action requirements applicable to specified federal contractors. Section 504 includes protections against discrimination applicable to recipients of federal financial assistance and federally conducted activities. Section 508 requires that federal departments and agencies design, procure, use and maintain information and communication technology systems that are accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities. 

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 is a substantial reform measure targeting the existing workforce system and includes amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. WIOA repeals and replaces the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998. Title IV of WIOA amends the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies to enter into official partnerships with state Medicaid and intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD) agencies. The Rehab Act, as amended by WIOA, also specifies an employment outcome under the VR program as “competitive integrated employment.” This is defined as full-time or part-time work at minimum wage or higher, with wages and benefits similar to those without disabilities performing the same work, and fully integrated with co-workers without disabilities. The Rehab Act, as amended by WIOA, also instructs state VR agencies to set-aside 15 percent of public VR funds to be used in school to adult transition services. In addition, the Rehab Act, as amended by WIOA, establishes a process for specifying the circumstances under which an individual with a disability may be placed in a job paying a sub-minimum wage. WIOA also moves some disability services and agencies, such as the Centers for Independent Living and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, from the Department of Education to the Administration for Community Living in the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 requires that all children with a disability are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. The law requires providing special education and related services included in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each participating child. IEPs are tailored to the individual needs and contain an education plan, including a transition plan for secondary education or employment at the age of 16. 

State Policy

“Work Matters: A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities” represents the culmination of a yearlong joint task force effort by state policymakers convened by NCSL and CSG to address barriers to employment and develop policy solutions to build a thriving workforce that is disability inclusive. Through the work of the task force, state legislators, legislative staff and state executive branch officials explored the causes of these barriers and devised bipartisan policy options supporting increased employment access and opportunity for people with disabilities.

This state-led, member-driven task force process resulted in the development of the Work Matters framework, composed of 13 major policy options organized into five policy categories below: 

Disabled man.

Laying the Groundwork

State can communicate state-level commitment to supporting employment access and opportunity for people with disabilities, including state as model employer, private sector capacity building, disability awareness, and interagency coordination efforts.

Preparing for Work

States can provide education and vocational training opportunities for youth and young adults with disabilities, including inclusive career planning, work-based learning and family engagement.

Accessing Work Opportunities

States can ensure that physical spaces, services and technologies facilitate equal access to work opportunities, including accessible information and communication technology and employment-related transportation.


States can provide employers with tools to retain and advance workers when severe injury, illness or a change in disability status occurs.

Self Employment and Entrepreneurship

States can increase access and opportunities for new and existing business owners with disabilities through entrepreneurship training and business incentives and supports.


Disability Etiquette: Interacting with People with Disabilities

The following six categories of disability capture distinct areas of social interaction:

  • Visual Disability
  • Hearing Disability
  • Ambulatory Disability
  • Cognitive Disability
  • Self-Care Disability
  • Independent Living Disability

Disabled person pointing to a flip chart.However, these distinct categories are not meant to be exclusive, and many people may have disabilities that fall under two or more of these categories. The following information provides a brief overview of each of the six categories in order to help policymakers interact with constituents with various categories of disabilities.

Visual Disability

Visual disabilities typically fall into two groups:

Individuals who are legally blind (for purposes of disability claims): an individual has a visual acuity of 20/200 with correction or has a field of vision of 20 yards or less. The legally blind designation does not require someone to be totally blind.

Individuals with low vision: any condition that significantly impedes an individual’s visual abilities related to major life activities. Individuals with low vision might have some visual functionality and often use corrective devices and adaptive technology that reads computer text or greatly increases font size.

Conditions that frequently meet the definition of visual disability: blind, cataracts, macular degeneration, and cortical visual impairment.

Tips for Lawmakers: Meeting with Constituents with Visual Disabilities
  • Verbalize common body language and non-verbal communication. Say yes or no instead of shaking your head. Consider using descriptive words you might not ordinarily use to reference emotions, shapes and colors to aid in communication.
  • When approaching someone or leaving the room, announce your arrival or departure. Include both your name and the name of the person with a visual impairment when announcing your arrival or departure so that he or she can keep track of who is present.
  • If someone has a service animal, do not interact with the animal unless you have obtained permission from its handler. Service animals are working when accompanying their handlers. Unsolicited petting or other distractions can disorient or endanger both the handler and the service animal. 
  • Don’t avoid words like “see” and “look” as parts of common phrases. People who are blind or have low vision use those words as parts of everyday speech, too. For example, it is fine to say, “It is nice to see you.”

Hearing Disability

Hearing disabilities fall into one of three major groups:

Conductive: Full or partial loss of hearing due to damage or obstruction to the outer ear canal. Often conductive hearing loss can be mitigated through surgical or medical treatments.

Sensorineural: Full or partial loss of hearing due to damage to the inner ear or neural pathways between inner ear and brain. Surgical and medical interventions often produce little mitigation of sensorineural hearing loss.

Mixed: Any configuration of hearing loss with both conductive and sensorineural elements

Conditions that frequently meet the definition of hearing disability: deaf, hard of hearing, and auditory neuropathy.

Tips for Lawmakers: Meeting with Constituents with Hearing Disabilities
  • Ensure you are facing a constituent with a hearing disability and that he or she has an unobstructed view of your face and mouth. Even though many people with hearing disabilities do not read lips, facial cues and body language can aid in communication. When communicating with a constituent with a hearing disability with the aid of a sign language interpreter, focus your interactions, communication and attention on the individual with a hearing disability, not the interpreter.
  • American Sign Language is not an exact translation of English. American Sign Language (ASL) is its own language and has its own grammar, vocabulary and style. Communication through written English may or may not be effective with people who speak ASL as their primary language; when using written communication methods, try to keep written English sentences short and simple.
  • Speak at a normal volume when talking to someone with hearing aids. Shouting or a raised voice can be painful to someone with hearing aids and typically does not aid in communication clarity.

Ambulatory Disability

Ambulatory disabilities refer to any condition, impairment or diagnosis that impedes a person’s ability to walk or climb stairs.

Causes of ambulatory disabilities include physical damage to, or loss of, a limb or multiple limbs, spinal cord injuries, and neurological disorders and brain injuries.

People with ambulatory disabilities might frequently or always use mobility aids like canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Someone who requires periodic use of a wheelchair or ambulatory aid is still understood to have a disability.

Conditions that frequently meet the definition of ambulatory disability: loss of limb, paraplegia or quadriplegia, ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis.

Tips for Lawmakers: Meeting with Constituents with Ambulatory Disabilities
  • Ensure that there is an accessible entrance to your office or meeting place. People using wheelchairs and walkers need an entrance with a ramp to the door and a clear path 36 inches to 42 inches wide. Checking the route from entrance to meeting space can help prevent an embarrassing and frustrating situation for both you and your constituent.
  • If a constituent looks like help is needed, first ask if he or she would like assistance, then wait for specific instructions. Don’t assume that a constituent having difficulty with a door or maneuvering through a hallway needs assistance. Your constituents with ambulatory disabilities deal with access issues every day and are very self-sufficient. Let them tell you what, if any, assistance they need.
  • Your constituent will appreciate your efforts to respect their personal space. It might be tempting to place your hand on the shoulder of a person in a wheelchair or grab the arm of someone using a cane or walker as an offer of assistance, but it is respectful to maintain the same level of personal space with them as you would for any other person.

Cognitive Disability

Cognitive disabilities refer to conditions that create difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.

Physical, mental and emotional conditions can all contribute to an individual having a cognitive disability.

Some cognitive disabilities, including many intellectual and developmental disabilities, are acquired at birth or early childhood. Other cognitive disabilities may be acquired later on in life due to brain damage or the emergence of mental health conditions.

Conditions that frequently meet the definition of cognitive disability: autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, traumatic brain injury, Down Syndrome, and depression.

Tips for Lawmakers: Meeting with Constituents with Cognitive Disabilities 
  • Plan extra time for meetings to accommodate constituents with information processing difficulties. Many cognitive disabilities impede an individual’s ability to take in, process and respond to information. Allow your constituent a pause in conversation to process the information you provide.
  • Provide constituents a written synopsis of what is discussed in a meeting. Consider providing a physical document at the end of your meeting or following up with an email recapping your conversation, including any assignments or next steps you discussed. This can aid people with cognitive disabilities in remembering a conversation.
  • Allow for breaks during extended meetings. People with cognitive disabilities might experience concentration fatigue more quickly than others. Periodic breaks will assist in information processing and increase concentration stamina.  

Self-Care Disability

An individual with a self-care disability has difficulty dressing or bathing without assistance. This definition includes other personal hygiene tasks like brushing teeth and toileting.

People with self-care disabilities have a wide variety of conditions and may live in assisted living facilities or use a hired personal care attendant or family member to assist with self-care tasks.

Conditions that frequently meet the definition of cognitive disability: Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Tips for Lawmakers: Meeting with Constituents with Self-Care Disabilities
  • A constituent with a self-care disability may be accompanied by a personal care attendant. Personal care attendants are present to assist with daily self-care needs, not communication and information processing. Avoid using the assistant or companion as a communication intermediary.
  • Constituents with self-care disabilities frequently use mobility devices like wheelchairs or walkers. Anticipate physical building accessibility needs before determining a meeting location. It is appropriate to ask what sorts of space and access considerations your constituent requires when scheduling a meeting. 

Independent Living Disability

Disabled women crossing street with assistance.An independent living disability refers to any condition, impairment or diagnosis that produces difficulties in performing errands alone. This includes, but is not limited to, going out in public to shop and visit doctor’s offices.

People with independent living disabilities experience difficulties completing the tasks necessary for living alone or apart from guardians, and might need additional support and training in performing daily tasks like catching the bus and paying bills.

Many of the skills necessary to perform activities of independent living are also commonly required skills in the workplace. Independent living disabilities can refer to difficulty in performing tasks, but also to difficulty coping with environmental stimuli present during the performance of tasks.

Independent living disabilities can be related to physical, mental and emotional conditions and may be present from birth or acquired later in life.

Conditions that frequently meet the definition of independent living disabilities: autism spectrum disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and anxiety disorders.

Tips for Lawmakers: Meeting with Constituents with Independent Living Disabilities
  • Consider meeting with constituents in a low-traffic, low-noise environment. A constituent with an independent living disability may have difficulty being in crowded and sensory rich places. Meeting with the constituent in a location of his or her choosing is an appropriate and respectful accommodation.
  • Allow for flexible meeting timing, an appointment window, rescheduling or telecommunication alternatives. Constituents with independent living disabilities might have difficulty arriving on time for a variety of reasons, including reliance on public transit or condition flare-up, and may not be able to leave the house. A constituent may prefer to have a meeting over the phone or through Internet video conferencing.
  • Ask constituents if they would like detailed directions to the meeting location and an advanced copy of the meeting agenda. Constituents with independent living disabilities may be more at ease and better able to participate when they have time to go over the details of a meeting in advance.

Further Resources

Federal and State Policy Information

National Conference of State Legislatures

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) continues to expand its policy expertise and legislative research support on disability and employment issues. NCSL is available to provide technical assistance, answer information requests, and connect legislators and legislative staff with relevant resources on disability and employment policy issues.

U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (dol.gov/odep)

The office provides statistics on current labor force participation and unemployment rates for people with disabilities, research on disability employment, and links to educational and technical assistance webinars. It also offers guidance documents for public and private employers and state workforce agencies and other providers that serve people with disabilities. It also is a source of information on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as general updates on federal initiatives to increase the employment of people with disabilities.

U.S. Department of Justice ADA Technical Assistance (ADA.gov)

The DOJ provides resources on the interpretation of ADA Title II (state and local governments) and III (public accommodations), including full text of the ADA as currently amended. Technical assistance includes recent ADA settlement agreements and guidance documents on ADA design standards for accessibility on new construction and building alterations. The website includes an archive of technical assistance documents on a wide variety of disability considerations relevant to state governments.


This online resource portal managed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy functions as an information and referral service connecting users to disability resources, benefits and service agency websites in 10 subject areas: benefits, civil rights, community life, education, emergency preparedness, employment, health, housing, technology and transportation.

Resources for Employers
Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (AskEARN.org)

AskEARN.org is a service of the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy through a cooperative agreement with the Viscardi Center. It is an online resource offering information and guidance to employers interested in recruiting, retaining and advancing employees with disabilities. Resources include publications, recommendations for creating a disability inclusive organizational culture, training and technical assistance materials, and guidance on legal rights and obligations for employers.

Job Accommodation Network (AskJAN.org)

AskJAN.org is an extensive source of free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations, a key provision of Title I of the ADA. It offers one-on-one guidance to employers and other entities via phone and online, and maintains an extensive database with detailed information on accommodations for a wide range of specific disabilities or disability families. It is also a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.