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Why some workers don’t disclose their disabilities

June 17, 2014

Photo of an employee under stressAn employee in the office receives a flexible time schedule, much to the irritation of her coworkers, who must stick to the 9-to-5 regimen. Because she often arrives an hour or two after everyone else, peers are forced to re-arrange daily meeting schedules. They feel it’s unfair and inequitable.

What this woman’s coworkers don’t know is this: She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which disrupts her sleep. The boss offered flex time as an accommodation to a legitimate but invisible disability.

In many workplaces across the country, this fictional situation might not be far from the truth. Millions of Americans deal with “invisible disabilities” on the job. Their issues range from depression, dyslexia and panic attacks to diabetes, cancer and hearing or sight impairments.

Yet disclosure to employers – necessary for protection under laws regarding treatment of people with disabilities in the workplace – can come at a cost so great many choose to keep their disabilities hidden.

“The potential stigma that could accompany workplace disclosure may lead employees with invisible disabilities to keep those features concealed at work, even at the cost of health and performance impairments,” says Northern Illinois University researcher Alecia Santuzzi, a professor of psychology.

“Current legislation and policies in the workplace are not sensitive to the unique nature of invisible disabilities,” she says. “So these workers must weigh the social costs against the work benefits of disclosing.”

Alecia Santuzzi

Alecia Santuzzi

Santuzzi is lead author on an article published recently in the journal, Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice. The authors highlight the unique challenges for workers and organizations dealing with unseen disabilities and, in light of this, argue for a review of current disability law and workplace polices.

Co-authors are NIU psychology department graduate student Pamela Waltz, NIU psychology professor Lisa Finkelstein and professor Deborah Rupp, William C. Byham Chair of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at  Purdue University.

“It is surprising that very little research has been conducted specifically on the plight of workers whose disabilities are not visually apparent,” Santuzzi says. “This is even more surprising given that invisible disabilities are well represented among the most recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

In fact, in recent years the media has highlighted employment discrimination cases related to hearing impairments, traumatic brain injury, cancer and HIV – all potentially unseen disabilities.

Employers must, as long as it does not create undue hardship to the organization, provide reasonable accommodations to enable qualified individuals with legally defined disabilities to perform the essential functions of a job.

But to receive accommodations, workers must not only disclose their disabilities but also engage in a dialogue with employers about how a given disability might be affecting job performance and what accommodations might be useful.

“Despite these requirements, research suggests that a very small percentage of employees with concealable disabilities actually disclose to employers,” Santuzzi says.

Pamela Waltz, Lisa Finkelstein and Deborah Rupp

Pamela Waltz,
Lisa Finkelstein
and Deborah Rupp

Without disclosure, the employer is obligated to interpret the worker’s behavior under the assumption that disability is not a factor. Some of the most common reasons workers with invisible disabilities don’t disclose include:

  • Denial. Individuals might not detect or accept their own disabilities. A person with depression, for example, might mistake the condition for what he or she considers normal mood variation.
  • Social stigma. Workers might choose not to disclose to avoid awkwardness at work or being treated differently. Even laws that aim to protect individuals with invisible disabilities can have a reverse effect, drawing attention to those workers and their differences and increasing stigma.
  • Potential misperceptions among coworkers. Confidentiality provisions prohibit an employer from informing coworkers that a peer is receiving accommodations for a disability. Recent research suggests that coworkers might view differential treatment as unfair and inequitable as a consequence.
  • Perceived legitimacy of a disability. Even when coworkers are aware that different treatment is being given to accommodate a disability, workers with non-obvious disabilities are more likely to illicit negative reactions, compared to employees with obvious disabilities. For example, coworkers might question whether a person with spinal stenosis is faking back pain to get desired perks.
  • A lack of awareness. Many invisible disabilities are only vaguely understood, and symptoms of lesser known disabilities such as dyscalculia, a learning disability involving math, are less likely to be detected, properly diagnosed or treated. Complicating matters is the fact that clinical and legal definitions can change over time.
  • Burden of proof. Under current laws, a worker must prove he or she has a disability. Particularly with unseen disabilities, a worker might feel uncertain or insecure about the nature of his or her condition.
  • Legal ambiguity. According to federal law, a condition must interfere with at least one major life activity to qualify under the legal definition of disability. But what constitutes a major life activity is subject to the interpretation of the legal system.

“Variability and ambiguity creates challenges for impacted workers and employers alike,” Santuzzi says.

“The stress of hiding a disability identity can come with health costs, and workers whose concealed disabilities interfere with work might receive poorer reviews and lower wages,” she says. “Depending on the type of work, the lack of disclosure also could have negative implications for the safety of the employee, as well as coworkers, customers and the public.”

The journal article’s authors believe much more policy review and analysis is needed to fully understand the issues facing workers with invisible disabilities and how they can be most effectively and fairly accommodated.

“By identifying where and why the disclosure decision breaks down, more sensitive and effective workplace policies could be developed,” Santuzzi says.

The authors suggest that policymakers consider amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act and changes to workplace policies to provide flexibility to the disclosure process and alternative ways to provide accommodations.

The authors further recommend employers develop policies and practices for training and education of supervisors and coworkers regarding invisible disabilities.

“Employers could adopt practices that regularly assess the well-being and work challenges of all employees,” Santuzzi says. “Such check-ups would not only detect disability-related changes among individual employees but also would convey a universal concern and value for all employees.”