The Americans with Disabilities Act has been prohibiting disability-based discrimination for nearly three decades now, but many workers living with disabilities still contend with teasing and harassment, anxiety about their relationships with their coworkers, and concerns that their productivity will be undervalued and their career ambitions won't be taken seriously. So it's no surprise that many of these workers choose not to disclose their conditions to their managers, teams, and HR departments, as new research shows.
For the Center for Talent Innovation's "Disabilities and Inclusion" study, researchers found that "a full 30 percent of the professional workforce fits the current federal definition of having a disability, and the majority are keeping that status a secret." Specifically, only 39 percent of these employees have disclosed their disabilities to their managers, only 24 percent have disclosed to their teams, only 21 percent have disclosed to HR, and only 4 percent have disclosed to their clients.
As the researchers point out in Harvard Business Review, many disabilities are visible (e.g. those of people who use a wheelchair or who have prosthetic limbs), but many other disabilities are invisible (e.g. diabetes, ADHD, depression or other mental health issues) or only sometimes perceptible (e.g. low vision). Those workers whose disabilities are invisible at least part of the time are thus faced with the choice of when to disclose and to whom.
Those who do disclose tend to feel more content at work, the researchers note: "Employees with disabilities who disclose to most people they interact with are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than employees with disabilities who have not disclosed to anyone (65% versus 27%). They are also less likely to regularly feel nervous or anxious (18% versus 40%) or isolated (8% versus 37%)."
Other research shows how critical it is for employers to make employees with disabilities feel welcomed and supported. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently determined that only 17.5 percent of people with a disability and 16 years of age or older were employed as of 2015. And our own research here at Werk showed that the current workday structure makes it challenging for 29 percent of the U.S. workforce to manage a physical condition or a chronic illness.
Workplace flexibility, of course, provides a solution. Among all the other benefits of an adaptive workday is the fact that it enables many workers with disabilities to stay employed, productive, and on advancement tracks. "People with disabilities are a very diverse group within themselves," notes Diversity & Inclusion specialist Jesse Wusthoff. "Many need no workplace adjustments, but others would greatly benefit from flexibility."
Some, for example, would benefit from Remote or DeskPlus—depending on whether they need location independence or location variety, perhaps so they can work from home all or part of the time. Others might need time-based workday customizations like TimeShift to avoid rush hour or mass transit, or MicroAgility so they can attend midday medical appointments.
"Disability is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people," Wusthoff reminds us. "Those who have not lived with a disability may find it challenging to really understand and trust the needs that may arise. And when someone's disability is invisible? It takes even more trust. But if you listen to your employees, design a program that meets their needs, and focus on their skills and outcomes, the results will speak for themselves."