The Cornell Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers

Tips, checklists, and resources to help managers lead a disability inclusive workforce.

Topic #5
An Employee Just Told Me About a Disability:
What Do I Do Now?

You are not alone  

Cornell Medical Leaves Administration provides managers with support as they deal with disability-related issues. If an employee has informed you of a disability, talk to your local HR manager as soon as possible to determine next steps, contact Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 or visit Disability Accommodations. Finally, look at Tool #10 of this toolkit to find out more about disability resources available at Cornell.

As much as possible, keep them engaged  

As a manager, your first thought might be, “How can I avoid running afoul of the law?” This is understandable; laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do apply in this situation. But your immediate thoughts here shouldn’t just be about the law. A key priority here is, as much as possible, to keep this employee engaged in the job and to reduce non-productive time. This means reaching out to the employee early on to begin a conversation about what can be done to enable them to remain productive and engaged.  

The key is building trust 

Building trust is the key to ensuring that employees can continue to contribute when working with a disability. Employees take a risk when coming forward with a disability. The fundamental principles of coaching are as important here as with any other employee challenge: Discuss Cornell’s commitment to their employees and to diversity, listen, stay focused on the work, be responsive, and appreciate the employee’s effort to come forward. 

Suspend your immediate judgments 

Never assume you know what someone with a disability can or cannot accomplish on the job. Lowered expectations are the most significant barrier individuals with disabilities face in the workplace.  

Does this person have a “disability” under the ADA?

“Disability” means different things to different people. The ADA defines a disability as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The recent passing of the ADA Amendment Act gives more workers rights by expanding the definition of “disability.” How can managers know if this individual’s disability is covered by the ADA? Here’s a simple rule of thumb. If an individual’s condition impairs her normal daily functioning or impacts the way their body works and is expected to last longer than several months, assume this person has a disability and has rights under the ADA. Assume this employee could have a right to an accommodation. When in doubt, speak to Cornell Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 or visit Disability Accommodations.

As a manager, how do I know whether I have to start the accommodation process?

The accommodation process needs to be triggered if the employer has a reasonable belief that an accommodation is needed. Sometimes employees will simply tell you that they have a disability and need an accommodation. But many times, employees may not know that they have a right to an accommodation. They might just make remarks around having a health condition that impacts their job. In some cases, these remarks should trigger the accommodation process. But how will a manager know?  Is this employee just making a casual remark about a passing health problem or is this employee telling you about a disability covered under the ADA that needs to be accommodated? Consider these two points: 

  1. Is the condition the employee talks about likely to last a long time and likely to be serious enough to impact major life activities? If yes, then it is more likely to be a disability under the ADA.
  2. Is there a reasonable belief that this condition impacts the employee’s job tasks? 

If the answer to these two questions is yes, you should trigger the accommodation process by contacting Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607-255-1177 or 607-255-7706 (TTY).

What are some examples of remarks that should trigger the accommodation process?

Here are examples of remarks that would probably not put you on notice that an accommodation is needed:

  • “I really feel tired today, I think my allergies are kicking in.” 
  • “I feel so stressed out. I really need to take up meditation.”
  • “I think I’m coming down with something. I feel so achy.”

And here are examples of remarks that should put you on notice that an accommodation might be needed:

  • “I’m sorry I had to leave the meeting earlier. I had some problems with my insulin.”
  • “I was a little late yesterday because my MS symptoms had kicked in.”
  • “I’m trying out a new medication for my PTSI and it’s making me groggy. That’s why my reports were a little late.”

What do I need to do now?

  • Start by asking. When you hear remarks (such as those above) that could be treated as an accommodation need, privately ask the employee whether they might need an accommodation.
  • Get the ball rolling. The employer must set into motion a good faith and timely effort to find a disability accommodation that enables an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. To find out more, contact Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 or visit Disability Accommodations.
  • Keep them in the loop. At all points in the process, keep the employee in the loop about next steps. Keep the employee informed about who will be told about the situation and why. Finally, create a longer term “check-in” plan to deal with questions or challenges early.

Do not ask about medications

Managers should never ask about an employee’s medications. Instead stay focused on the work—on actual behaviors at work, on concrete issues of job performance and productivity. 

About safety concerns (direct threat)

If a manager has a reasonable belief that an employee’s disability poses a potential safety issue or direct threat to him or herself, co-workers, or the public, the manager can act to alleviate this danger. Also, Cornell can require an employee to provide medical documentation to assess a potential direct threat situation. Direct threat is defined as a “significant risk of substantial harm to health or safety of self or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” What does this mean to managers who have a safety concern related to disability? And what is a “reasonable belief” or “appropriate action?” Think through the following questions:

  • Is there a clear and immediate danger?  If so, it’s appropriate to take immediate action.
  • Are you considering taking action regarding an employee with a disability to avoid a possible future danger? Before you act, consider whether this risk is clear, justifiable, and credible:   
    • Is this risk situation likely to be prolonged or permanent? 
    • Is there a clear likelihood that harm will occur? 
    • Would the potential harm be serious?
    • Is this potential harm imminent or immediate?
    • Can this direct threat be mitigated through an accommodation?

In other words, direct threat must be based on reasonable belief or evidence, instead of on vague justifications or unlikely scenarios.  Here are some examples:

Situation: A retail sales worker tells a co-worker she has a history of bipolar disorder. This co-worker then tells the manager. The manager now feels this disability may pose a danger to customers and wants to reassign her to a warehouse job.  

Response: A history of a psychiatric disability does not in itself constitute a direct threat. Unless there is other evidence or incidents, a bipolar diagnosis alone would not pose a direct threat situation and this reassignment would not be permissible.


Situation: A welder has told his supervisor he has diabetes and needs to take breaks to manage his condition. The supervisor now wants to terminate this employee fearing he might go into insulin shock while working with welding equipment, which could pose a danger to co-workers.  

Response: Most people with diabetes manage their condition effectively and do not experience insulin shock. Without other evidence, this would not be considered a direct threat situation. 


Situation:  A truck driver comes into his dispatch office to be assigned another delivery. His manager notices the driver seems to be staring a lot and walking very slowly.    

Response: This is a credible direct threat situation and the manager should take immediate steps to alleviate the danger, including notifying medical personnel and not allowing the employee to drive until medical evidence can be collected to assess potential danger. 


Reach out to your local HR manager or contact Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration if you have a concern about a potential direct threat situation.

Tracking Disability as Diversity at Cornell

New policies now require Cornell to strive toward a workforce that contains at least seven percent of individuals with disabilities. To track this information we must find out how many applicants and employees have a disability. To do this, Cornell uses a form called the Invitation to Voluntarily Self-Identify as a Person with a Disability. Encourage all applicants and employees to complete this form, whether or not it seems they have a disability. Also, when an employee tells her manager about a disability (called disclosing a disability), the manager can encourage her to complete this form then. This form is confidential.  Managers should be ready to tell applicants and employees where to send this form. But they should not see the form of an individual applicant or employee. If an employee mistakenly tells her manager what she wrote on this form, this information should not be recorded in personnel files and should not be used in decisions such as hiring or performance management. Direct the employee to self-identify through Workday or to send this form to Cornell’s Office of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity

150 Day Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-3976
(607) 255-7066 (TTY)

A veteran just told me about a disability

At Cornell, we are fully committed to employing veterans, including veterans with disabilities. Often, service-connected disabilities such as post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) might not be obvious to others. Coming forward with these disabilities is a matter of trust for many veterans. Veterans with these and other disabilities can and do contribute effectively to Cornell’s workforce but they might need an accommodation. When a veteran comes forward with a disability, thank him for putting his trust in you. Assure him that he is not alone and that Cornell will begin the process of finding an accommodation which will enable him to work with this disability.  Refer him to Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration office. Also, let him know about other resources and supports for veterans at Cornell, such as Cornell's Military Community Resources.