Disability Disclosure: Employer and Employee Perspective

Published September 29, 2021

An inclusive workplace has been described in many different ways (HUD has attempted to define it) but common to all definitions is the vision of a work environment where people with all varieties of differences, including disabilities, feel secure and recognized for the unique skills and value they bring to the job. It is axiomatic that developing such an environment requires an employer's understanding of the nature and extent of employee disabilities in its workplace. Unfortunately, only a relatively small percentage of people with disabilities readily make this disclosure.

The disclosure gap

A 2017 report by Coqual, formerly the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank and advisory group working for the advancement of underrepresented groups, found that among college-educated employees in white-collar work environments, 30% of those employees worked with some form of disability. Surprisingly, however, only about 3.2% of these employees chose to disclose their disabilities to their respective employers. If this finding is even partially consistent across the board, employers shouldn’t be shocked to learn that over 25% of their employees have a disability even though the employers are not privy to the fact.

Both employer and employee have quite a bit to gain by increasing the frequency of disability disclosures. It is therefore important to understand the reasons why people with disabilities seemingly choose so frequently not to disclose. With a better understanding of the phenomenon, employers can take specific steps to improve the situation.

The benefits of disclosure for employers

Improving the disability disclosure rate can lead to significant improvement in every area of an organization starting with recruitment and hiring and ultimately impacting bottom-line financial results. These improvements include:

  • Improved job satisfaction - The simple fact that employees who are happy and satisfied at work are more productive is well documented. Coqual’s study also points out that employees who do disclose disabilities are at least twice as content at work. A 2008 Department of Labor study found that employees who perceived that they were truly included at work “reported job satisfaction, commitment, and productivity.”
  • Better performance with accommodation – A basic goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is to encourage creative accommodations that enable people with disabilities to perform at their highest potential. It goes without saying that it is impossible to design and implement this ideal accommodation if an employer is unaware of a disability.
  • Better compliance – Employers who proactively address the disability disclosure gap, tend to operate in compliance with legal requirements. However, certain regulations require documentation of this effort. For example, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, requires that organizations that contract with the federal government measure and demonstrate that seven percent of their employees “self-identify” as people with disabilities.

Why employees may not disclose

The decision to disclose or not to disclose a disability is of course a very personal one. As a result, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the general reasons people with disabilities make these decisions. Nevertheless, a number of common factors that typically influence these decisions have been identified.

Many disabilities are not readily apparent or apparent at all. Whether real or perceived, it is clear that many people with invisible disabilities are concerned with potential stigma. For example, disabilities involving neurological conditions, mental illness or addiction, may, in the mind of an impacted employee, raise a risk that discrimination could be more significant with disclosure than without. It often seems easier for people with invisible disabilities to simply remain silent.

People with disabilities which are externally apparent may still choose not to disclose the full extent of a disability in order to hide its true nature. For example, a slight shakiness may be the result of Parkinson’s or other neurologist conditions. Limited mobility could be caused by an underlying condition or a prosthetic. The employee may understandably prefer to simply deal with the outwardly visible issues and not disclose a deeper condition.

Encouraging the disclosure of disabilities

Encouraging more disability disclosure can be a complex process and needs careful thought and patience. Some strategies include:

  • Establish a comfortable environment - Employers need to create an inclusive work environment in which employees with disabilities feel comfortable enough to disclose their disabilities. If an employee is worried about real support within the organization for career advancement, it is understandable that the employee may be hesitant to disclose a disability.
  • Broadcast a commitment to inclusion – Employers should not be shy about announcing policies designed to promote inclusion. Communication strategies, both internal and external, to announce successes and highlight individuals with disabilities who have made a difference, can go a long way in building the necessary organizational trust necessary for people with disabilities to be open about their conditions.
  • Educate the workforce – It is critical that employers educate all employees about the goals of the ADA and the many ways that employees with disabilities can receive accommodations to help them fully contribute and participate in the workplace. A more knowledgeable workforce minimizes the likelihood of discrimination, illustrates the many routes to success for people with disabilities, and improves productivity by recognizing the value of providing reasonable accommodations.
  • Provide and showcase career growth opportunities - When employees with disabilities are able to watch their coworkers successfully engaged in career training, mentoring programs, obtaining promotions, and being rewarded for their opinions, it reinforces the belief that their company values them as well.


Encouraging and expanding the number of people with disabilities who fully disclose to employers is a win-win strategy that can reap significant rewards for both employer and employee. Employees who are accepted and valued for who they really are, are in turn much more comfortable requesting accommodations. These employees are understandably more engaged and productive at their jobs.

Companies that successfully engage in this effort will recognize a growing momentum towards inclusiveness. Eventually, a tipping point can be reached as more and more people with disabilities come forward and disclose. What is achieved is a better workplace and a successful organization for everyone.


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