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Why we need to encourage workplace disclosure of non-visible disabilities

A significant percentage of Americans have a disability. CDC data suggests that one in four adults in the United States are disabled, but it doesn’t look like that as we go through everyday life because many of these disabilities are just not that visible.

It’s a similar situation in the workplace. We may know about a few co-workers living with a disability, but in many other instances, it just isn’t that obvious that a person is navigating the challenges of daily working life while simultaneously navigating the challenges of a disability.

When these disabilities remain hidden it can lead to missed opportunities both for the person with the disability and for the organization that they work for. In this article, we’ll take a look at the need for disclosure – and what we can do to encourage it.

What do we mean by a hidden disability?

We all know what a visible disability is. Someone who is a wheelchair user is visibly disabled and often gets very visible help when they need it – with people instinctively opening the door, and with buildings visibly accommodating wheelchair users through ramps and accessibility elevators.

Other disabilities are less obvious but become visible quickly through everyday workplace interactions. For example, you may not immediately notice that someone is deaf, but it’ll become apparent once you interact with that person.

However, there is a whole range of disabilities that are very hard to identify unless the person pro- actively discloses that disability. This includes differences in the way people think, such as ADHD and dyslexia, and mental health challenges including depression and anxiety, plus many other healthissues that significantly impact daily life.

The workplace implications of hidden disabilities

When a disability isn’t that visible it is first and foremost the disabled person that is affected, and to a degree, it comes down to misperceptions. A non-visible disability can easily lead to a misjudgment about a co-worker, and that misjudgment can be difficult to deal with for those living with the disability.

Consider the accommodations commonly made for a disability; for example, more frequent meal breaks to allow for a dietary requirement. If the disabled person chooses not to disclose their disability, they can easily be misjudged as being treated more favorably, when what’s really happening is just an accommodation for a genuine need.

That’s just a small example of the negative feelings disabled workers can experience, which carries through to a sense of inequality and valid concerns around the remaining negative views surrounding disability. After all, stereotypes persist including perceptions that disabled people are less productive in the workplace.

For the disabled worker this can quickly lead to a feeling of exclusion, and indeed exclusion at a practical level, which in turn means that a significant proportion of your workforce do not fully participate in your organization.

Worse, for workers whose disabilities are less visible, their experience in the workplace can mean that they choose not to disclose their disability. They might make that decision because the choice between disclosing and not disclosing can feel like a choice between accepting discrimination andjudgment – or just going ahead and putting up with a tougher than needed work environment.

A friendly environment for disclosure

So, what can we do about these challenges? First, we need to make it easier for employees with a disability to come forward and talk about that disability. A 2019 Harvard Business Review survey found that disabled employees who disclosed their disability were much more likely to feel happy or content at work (65%) vs. those who did not (27%).

Clear, encouraging policies from the HR department can prompt people with less visible disabilities to discuss their disability with HR and their senior colleagues. Adding a disclosure box to a form is not enough. We need to consistently communicate a welcoming message encouraging disclosure because a single opportunity for disclosure won’t get past (understandable) personal barriers.

Disclosure needs to be followed by action – proactively ask yourself what you can do to make life easier for the person who disclosed their disability. And, without a doubt, your organization must be responsive to any requests to accommodate a disability.

Often, accommodating a disability involves simple actions that pose little or no hardship for the employer – like our example about changes in lunch break hours, or supplying a standing desk to help with back problems. But these requests are easily forgotten, so consider putting in place aformal process.

An understanding culture

Formal processes are a step in the right direction, but the best way to achieve inclusion is through culture. Create an open, inviting organizational culture that’s understanding of disabilities that aren’t always visible and you make it much easier for your disabled colleagues both to disclose, and to get the help they need to go through daily life at work with minimal encumbrance.

Yes, certainly, leadership and HR will step in to help a disabled colleague through any difficulties. But for disabled workers to truly contribute their maximum in the workplace, that will require a high level of understanding from everyone.

Fostering an inclusive culture creates an environment where staff who have no disability can act with sensitivity to colleagues whose disabilities aren’t readily apparent. That kind of culture will encourage disabled staff to disclose their disabilities and to proactively communicate what thatmeans for them in the workplace, what they need from their colleagues, and what they need from their employer.

What can you do to instill a disability-friendly culture? Again, repeated and consistent communication helps. Hiring policies that encourage diversity is another key component, and you should also consider setting up an employee resource group that helps your disabled colleagues to come together and discuss their needs.

If your organization qualifies for any diversity certification – anywhere on the spectrum – make an

effort to obtain that certification, including certifying as a disability-owned enterprise (DOBE) if it is relevant to you.

Giving disabled people a seat at the table

Life is filled with a spectrum of people, with a broad range of views and types of life and values and lifestyles. If we engage and benefit from only a narrow portion of the spectrum, instead of benefiting from the full three-sixty, we will miss out.

People with disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And, under ADA Section 12111, reasonable accommodations must be made when needed. But simply ticking a box won’t do the job because box-ticking isn’t real engagement.

That goes for working life too. Disabled people must navigate challenging obstacles in everyday life that the majority don’t have to navigate. You could argue that disabled people must be more creative in everyday life. In turn, disabled colleagues bring a more diverse, resourceful, and creative viewpoint to the workplace.

Acting inclusively toward disabled people means that we give them a seat at the table. According to Julie Sue Auslander, Couranto’s President, and Chief Cultural Officer, “you know you are doing a good job with disability and diversity when your workforce mirrors your customers and society. If society has 25% disabled people, then so should your work force. It is only then that we will have optimized our business potential.” But that will only happen when we engage every disabled colleague in the workplace, including people whose disability isn’t visible – which is why we need to encourage disclosure.

About Couranto

A WBENC and Disability:IN certified diverse company with more than 30 years experience in corporate information contract management, Couranto serves clients globally with strategic programs that maximize the value of information portfolios by reducing costs while improving access to licensed content, data resources, intellectual property, corporate memberships and related contracts. Couranto’s Discovery and Clarity platforms provide custom-configured end-to-end information access, budget planning and license management tools. Built on deep expertise and a long history of client successes, Couranto solutions add value to your information and help drive innovation throughout your organization, creating enduring impact.


Information about the author

Julie Auslander

Julie Sue Auslander

President, Chief Cultural Officer

Julie Sue Auslander is the company’s Chief Cultural Officer or Corporate Evangelist and avoids the traditional “President” persona. These terms better reflect her commitment to a process of insight and discovery—a process that shaped her role as a leader of a successful woman-owned business.

Year after year, her leadership earns Couranto national recognition, including a spot on Inc 5000 and “Top 50 Women Owned Business” in New Jersey. She was also named a WBENC National Star in 2012. Auslander was honored with the “2008 Enterprising Woman of the Year” recognition and made the Women’s Enterprise list of 2008 top businesses in the U.S. She earned her MA and MEd from Columbia University and a BS from Pace University in New York.