The ADA Turns 33: Reflecting on Progress Made, Challenges That Remain

5 tips to support the inclusion of workers with invisible disabilities

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales July 25, 2023

​Upon its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established workplace protections, boosted economic self-sufficiency and expanded employment opportunities for millions of people with disabilities.

However, disability-rights advocates say employers must do more to create a truly inclusive workplace for these workers—particularly for employees with invisible, or nonapparent, disabilities.

Craig Leen, an attorney with K&L Gates in Washington, D.C., and a former director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), called the ADA a "truly landmark civil rights legislation" for its impact on workers with disabilities.

"It provided individuals with disabilities the broad legal right to access public spaces, housing, government, employment, education and other social services," he said. "The ADA also provided a framework for ensuring access and requesting accommodations that facilitates workers with disabilities being able to thrive in employment."

Eric Ascher is a senior communications associate at RespectAbility, a fully remote nonprofit that focuses on fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He said that the ADA has provided the legal foundation for progress for individuals with disabilities.

"Things like accessible office buildings, accessible transportation to and from work, reasonable accommodations—these aren't nice-to-haves; they're necessary for disabled people to succeed in the workplace," Ascher said. "All of these concepts are widespread because of the ADA."

SHRM Research Reveals 'Problematic' Findings

Despite the strides made under the ADA, workers with disabilities continue to face obstacles to employment.

The employment rate for individuals with disabilities, while rising, continues to remain significantly lower than that of people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these workers who do land jobs face discrimination at work.

For workers with nonapparent disabilities, the ADA encourages workers to seek accommodations that boost well-being and productivity. But new research by SHRM shows that nearly half (47 percent) of employees with invisible disabilities, such as a learning disorder or autism, have not disclosed their condition at work.

Many respondents who had not disclosed their condition at work said that if they talked about their disabilities with their co-workers, their colleagues would be somewhat to very likely to:

  • Scrutinize their behavior (34 percent).
  • Think they can't fulfill their work responsibilities (31 percent).
  • Talk about them behind their back (30 percent).

Employees with invisible disabilities who have revealed their condition are about two to three times more likely than those without invisible disabilities to report experiencing incivility—such as rudeness, disrespect or insensitive behavior—from co-workers and supervisors.

Katie Merlini, senior researcher of thought leadership for SHRM, called the findings "problematic."

"Nearly half aren't disclosing, which may mean they're not getting the performance support they may need, such as workplace accommodations like flexible work hours or minimized workspace distractions," she said. "But, if they do disclose, they're more likely to be treated worse. So, either way, employees with invisible disabilities are facing unjust barriers to both performance and inclusion."

Eliminating Stigma Surrounding Nonapparent Disabilities

Research shows at least 10 percent of individuals in the U.S. have a medical condition that could be considered an invisible disability. Those who speak about their nonapparent disabilities are often socially isolated, resulting in lower morale and reduced productivity.

Andrew M. Gordon, an attorney with Hinshaw & Culbertson in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., noted that many people view nonapparent disabilities as "less serious or inconsequential," which has led to few workers feeling comfortable asking for an accommodation for a hidden disability at work.

"This is a persistent stigma that can only be overcome through continued education about the spectrum of disabilities covered by the ADA," he explained, "and through company cultures that create an understanding and empathic atmosphere where those suffering in silence can feel comfortable approaching HR about their hidden disabilities without fear of reprisal or retribution."

Ascher, who has autism, believes that stigma is preventing workers with nonapparent disabilities from discussing their condition with others at work. But employers can play a significant role in eliminating such stigmas, he said.

"The best thing an employer can do to support employees with nonapparent disabilities is to create a culture in which disclosing a disability and requesting accommodations is celebrated," Ascher explained. "Employers should want disabled employees to request accommodations, because the vast majority of accommodations are inexpensive to implement."

Leen offered five tips for employers to reduce stigma and create a more inclusive environment for workers with invisible disabilities:

  • Emphasize invisible disabilities in accessibility and inclusion initiatives.
  • Offer a wide range of accommodations to address neurodivergence, mental health disabilities and other nonapparent disabilities. For example, an employee who struggles with working memory due to a learning disability could receive written instructions for job duties instead of relying on verbal discussion.
  • List the different types of disabilities as illustrated in the OFCCP's updated self-identification of disability form.
  • Review the organization's accommodations systems and make sure it is easy to request an accommodation and that there is a centralized, efficient and fair process for reviewing and granting accommodations.
  • Routinely send emails to the workforce about disability inclusion, indicating that workers with disabilities are welcome and encouraging workers to seek accommodations.

Ivette Marina, chief operations officer at consulting company Auticon in Los Angeles, suggested that employers allow for workplace flexibility to support the needs of these workers.

"When you make the work environment as flexible as reasonably possible for the type of business that you are in," she explained, "you make it much easier for all of your employees to be productive and effective—not just those with an invisible disability."



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