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Are Your Employees Comfortable Disclosing Disability?

Americans with disabilities are most likely to disclose their disability when they need an accommodation or have a supportive supervisor and are least likely to do so if they fear they will lose a job, or fail to gain one, by doing so. But lack of disclosure could impact the workplace in a number of ways, an expert suggested.

Speaking during a Jan. 18, 2012, webinar titled “Disability Disclosure in the Workplace: What Employers Should Know,” Sarah von Schrader, Ph.D., assistant director of research for the Employment and Disability Institute of Cornell University, said that an employee’s willingness to reveal a disability is “an indicator of their comfort level with sharing personal information,” which is an “indicator of workplace climate and inclusiveness.”

Moreover, when employers are unaware an employee has a disability, they are unable to provide accommodations that might improve employee productivity. “If an employer doesn’t know about a disability it’s difficult to make adjustments,” she explained.

However, some individuals “have learned the hard way to be cautious” about what they reveal to co-workers and supervisors, she noted, and as SHRM Online reported in September 2010, because disclosure of disability is often not in the best interests of the individual.

The webinar was based on findings from the research report, Emerging Employment Issues for People with Disabilities, released Dec. 7, 2011, by Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

A total of 780 participants completed the online survey. Two-thirds of respondents were female, more than half were over the age of 45, and four out of five identified themselves as Caucasian.

Approximately three-quarters of respondents identified themselves as persons with a disability and were asked about their disability disclosure experience at their current or most recent job. Sixty-seven percent of respondents with disabilities were employed college graduates.

Employers who might be “under pressure to affirmatively hire and retain individuals with disabilities,” such as federal contractors and federal government employers, have a particular need to keep track of the number of employees and applicants with disabilities. As a result, they can benefit from greater knowledge about what might prevent people from disclosing their condition, the report noted, though all employers seeking to promote diversity and inclusion can benefit from the findings.

Factors That Promote Disclosure

The need for a job accommodation to perform a job or to take care of health issues during the workday is the most important factor those with a disability consider when deciding whether or not to disclose their condition to their employers—cited by 68 percent of respondents. Other “very important” factors include:

  • An open and supportive supervisor/employee relationship – 64 percent.
  • A disability-friendly workplace – 57 percent.
  • Evidence of active recruitment of individuals with disabilities – 51 percent.

Other factors mentioned by fewer than half of respondents but still noteworthy for employers include awareness of positive outcomes for others who had disclosed, the use of the word “disability” in a diversity statement, a belief that disclosure will lead to new opportunities, disability-focused recruiting materials, pictures of people with disabilities on the employer’s website, a disability-related employee resource group and the involvement of an individual with a disability in recruiting and job fairs.

Factors That Discourage Disclosure

“There is a common and not unfounded fear that disclosing a disability may lead to not being selected for a position or result in differential treatment in the workplace,” the research report noted. This fear is significant because U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2011 reveal that only about 21 percent of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population of people with disabilities is employed compared to about 69 percent of the nondisabled population. The risk of being fired or not hired was the top reason not to disclose, mentioned by 73 percent of Cornell’s respondents. Other reasons given for not disclosing include:

  • Concern that the employer might focus more on disability than on abilities – 62 percent.
  • The risk of losing health care – 62 percent.
  • A fear of limited opportunities for promotion – 61 percent.
  • Concern that the supervisor might not be supportive – 60 percent.
  • The risk of being treated differently by a supervisor or co-workers – 58 percent.

Notably, 44 percent of respondents with a disability said they chose not to disclose because their disability had no impact on their ability to perform their job.

Just 28 percent cited a desire for privacy.

Nevertheless, the majority of individuals with disabilities said they had disclosed their condition to their current or recent employer whether their disability was apparent to others or not. The timing of such disclosures varied, however. Half of those with apparent disabilities made their disclosure during the recruitment process, for example, while another third did so during the interview. However, many of those with disabilities that are either “not apparent” to others or only “somewhat apparent” waituntil after being hired to disclose.

Fortunately, the concerns cited are for the most part unrealized, according to von Schrader. “Most people have neutral or positive consequences from disclosure,” she said during the webinar. Less than 27 percent said they had experienced negative consequences.

However, the data showed that those with “very apparent” disabilities were far less likely to face negative consequences from disclosure than those with less apparent disabilities, as if the lack of foreknowledge about an individual’s disability led some employers or supervisors to react as if they had been duped by employees who chose to keep their condition private.

Common Experiences Related to Disclosure

Cornell’s survey provided respondents with opportunities to provide open-ended responses to key questions. The researchers grouped the responses into common themes and found that the decision to disclose—or not—was influenced by a variety of factors:

  • Timing of disclosure. Many respondents said they preferred to wait until they had been hired to disclose their condition, saying things like “I was hired for my extensive abilities, not my disabilities.”
  • Supportive workplaces are more important than progressive policies. “I would be wary of disclosing until I saw how the employer actually treated employees with mental issues, not just their stated policy,” one respondent noted.
  • Acceptance of disability. Some respondents felt it was important to gauge how accepting the employer was of “who they were” before disclosing, while others either disclosed right away “to be honest” or did so because they wished to educate others and serve as an example.
  • Fear of not being hired or fired. Respondents shared numerous experiences under this category such as the person who said “People do NOT hire individuals with mental health disability; they have too many pre-conceived ideas about them.”
  • Harassment and bullying. As one respondent said, “I was harassed daily, denied further training and eventually fired.”
  • Losing promotion opportunities. “Once you disclose your disability it can affect your long-term promotions,” one respondent noted. “The employer will always be aware of this no matter how hard you work.”

Though von Schrader noted that the comments conveyed more negative than positive experiences, there were many positive and neutral experiences mentioned by respondents.

What Employers Can Do

Susanne Bruyère, Ph.D., director of Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute, concluded the webinar by noting that employers “play an important role in creating an environment where individuals are comfortable disclosing.” To create such an environment, she encouraged employers to:

  • Show evidence of active recruitment of people with disabilities.
  • Conduct disability awareness training for all staff.
  • Enact flexible workplace policies.
  • Have fair systems to address employee complaints.
  • Create accessible workplaces.
  • Foster supportive supervisor-staff relationships.
  • Include disability in the diversity statement.

Similarly, employers should avoid focusing on an individual’s disabilities, Bruyère noted, and should be sure that they do not treat those with disabilities different than other employees in meetings, on performance reviews and when evaluating qualifications for hiring, termination and advancement purposes.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Do You Know Who Your Employees Are? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, November 2010

Be Aware of Disabilities, Whether Visible or Not, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, September 2010

Quick Links:

SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page

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