Key Differences Between Situational and Occupational Disabilities

by | Mar 9, 2022

Last Updated January 31, 2023
Situational and Occupational Disabilities

In the conversation surrounding Federal Disability Retirement, we often hear the terms occupational disability versus situational disability, but what does that really mean to your eligibility? Today we will be discussing the key differences between the two and what these differences mean to you with your disability retirement.


A situational disability is most simply described as a disability that is only impacting you due to the situation itself. Perhaps you have a co-worker that causes your anxiety to worsen when interacting with them. At work, you must interact with this co-worker on a daily basis, and this is leading to some incidents of severe anxiety, and it is impacting your overall job performance. While this is a very real and uncomfortable situation, there are changes that can be made that would alleviate this by changing the situation such as moving this co-worker to a different team or office location. We would consider this to be a situational disability since it can be changed by adjusting the situation or work environment but not necessarily the key functions of your position.  


An occupational disability is a disability that inhibits you from performing key functions of your position that cannot be resolved by changes in your situation. For example, you sustain a shoulder injury, and your doctor informs you that from now on, you have a maximum lifting limit of twenty pounds. In your current position as a letter carrier for USPS, you are required to regularly lift 70 pounds or more. This would be considered an occupational disability because it is a disability that prevents you from performing key functions of your duty that cannot be resolved without changing key functions of the position. Similarly, if one of the key functions of our position is to climb on a ladder to grab items and you suffer a knee injury that causes your doctor to restrict you from climbing, this would be considered an occupational disability as the injury is inhibiting your ability to perform that task. Occupational disabilities do not have to be physical, mental disabilities such as PTSD that inhibit your ability to perform your position can also be considered occupational.

Key Differences

While the occupational and situational can sometimes coincide, the important difference is that in an occupational disability, the disability itself is preventing you from performing the functions, rather than the situation as with a situational disability. A good way to think about it is to consider if one thing about the environment you are in were to change, would this disability still be impacting you in the same way? If you answered no, then you may be experiencing a situational disability rather than an occupational disability.

A key part of the application process for Federal Disability Retirement is for your agency to review your restrictions and try to find a reasonable accommodation for you. A reasonable accommodation is a change in your work environment or duties that allows you to fulfill key parts of your position while having your disability. An example of this would be if you work in a post office and have a difficulty standing at the counter for long periods of time. A reasonable accommodation for this would be allowing you to sit while doing this part of duties. Reasonable accommodations are not limited to physical disabilities. It could also be a situation like we mentioned above where you have ADHD and are distracted by others and unable to do certain tasks, so you are accommodated with a private space to perform these tasks. In order for you to be able to receive federal disability retirement, your agency must be unable to provide you with reasonable accommodations. OPM has a list of some of the accommodations they offer, you can access that information here.

Now that you understand the differences between the two, what does this all mean in terms of your eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement? According to the eligibility qualifications, you must have an occupational disability. As we mentioned previously, this means that your disability must be preventing you from performing key functions of your position and that is unable to be resolved by changing the situation. Though the examples listed above only referenced physical disabilities, please note that your disability does not have to be physical to be considered an occupational disability. Your agency may go through efforts to reasonably accommodate you once you apply for Federal Disability Retirement and determine if your disability is occupational or situational. If you are unsure of if your disability is situational or occupational, please call our office for a free consultation regarding your situation and eligibility.

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