Why Your Employees Don't Report Hidden Disabilities

Published May 4, 2022

Invisible disabilities are common, but you wouldn’t know it by how few employees report their disabilities to employers. Though 1 in 4 professionals have at least one disability, only 39 percent disclose such information to their managers. Even fewer share their disability with their teams or human resources departments.

Some workers with disabilities have no choice but to disclose them due to their visibility. However, the overwhelming majority of disabilities are either hidden or invisible, meaning they are not immediately apparent to others. Like people with visible disabilities, those with invisible disabilities can benefit from reasonable work accommodations that might maximize their job performance.

A recent Harvard study showed that employees with disabilities who chose to disclose are nearly 40% more content at work than those who do not. Revealing a disability can help managers and staff understand workers’ needs and allow for a more fair assessment of their job performance. So why do so many employees with hidden disabilities opt for non-disclosure?

The fear of inequality in the workplace

Fighting against stigma

People with disabilities have faced decades of inequality in society and work environments leading to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Still, discrimination in the workplace based on someone’s disability remains a valid concern. In fact, more than 250,000 employment discrimination complaints have been filed with the government since 2010. A significant disparity still exists in the unemployment rates between non-disabled people and disabled people. Furthermore, the United States unemployment rate for people with disabilities is the highest its ever been. Despite slowly improving representations of people with disabilities in media, disability stigma in society still proves to be a problem.

Negative stereotypes around people with disabilities include ideas that they are helpless, less productive, more dependent, or can only focus on the effects of their disability. For people with hidden disabilities, the difference between disclosure and non-disclosure could mean less discrimination, judgment and, in some cases, can even be the difference between consideration for a position and not.

Unfortunately, lack of education and miseducation around disability teaches much of society that someone can look non-disabled or disabled. While it’s true that some disabilities are visible, like disabilities that require white canes or wheelchairs, for example, there is no such thing as a “disabled look.” People with hidden disabilities who are presumed able-bodied must deal with the myriad of reactions to their disability when and if they share their status. And because disability is still quite stigmatized, sharing disability status even at work can feel like a gamble.

Employees want to be valued for their work

People want to be trusted to do their jobs well. Some workers with hidden disabilities may worry about losing that trust if they disclose their disability. Disability stereotypes, like assumed helplessness and inability to carry typical workloads, may lead some professionals with hidden disabilities to refrain from sharing in fear of losing responsibilities. While some workers with invisible disabilities might attempt to create their own accommodations instead of including their managers or HR, others try and work within the confines of workplace expectations, which may lead to added stress.

However, there are ways employers can combat stigma and show employees that disclosure is not only safe but welcome.

Equitable and accessible workplaces

Continuous studies show that the more diverse and inclusive companies typically have higher levels of productivity and profit. However, this fact isn’t common knowledge. More commonly accepted is a need for conformity in work environments — a conformity that people with disabilities likely cannot fit. Prospective employees with hidden disabilities may feel encouraged to disclose their disability if they know their disabilities are not just welcomed but understood to be assets.

Educating current employees about current ADA standards and the need for accessibility can benefit potential employees or even present employees with invisible disabilities to come forward. With everyone on the same page, company culture can more easily become more inclusive and accessible. For a genuinely inclusive workspace, companies not only need reasonable accommodations for all employees with disabilities but also need clearly-communicated commitments to inclusion and accessibility, culturally and for future business ventures.

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