Hidden Disabilities in the Workplace

When I speak to a company about hiring people with disabilities, they frequently tell me they have never hired people with disabilities before.  I tell them, “Oh yes you have. You have many employees working here right now with hidden disabilities—they just aren’t telling you.”

Most people with hidden disabilities do not discuss their disabilities in the workplace or with friends, due to the stigma attached. I know many people with various hidden disabilities such as epilepsy, depression, diabetes,other psychiatric disabilities, and HIV/AIDS, who would never disclose for fear of discrimination.

I understand hidden disabilities because I live with one—epilepsy.  Unless I have a seizure in front of you, you would never know I have a disability—it is hidden.

Employees with hidden disabilities have to take steps to manage their disability as it relates to the workplace.  Individuals may have to leave the office for insulin shots, ask for a flexible schedule to accommodate a psychiatric disability, or require a rest after having a tonic-clonic seizure. The problem is most people do not disclose a hidden disability; therefore, these actions seem like inappropriate behavior to co-workers or management.  They may not understand why I need 20 minutes or more to recover from the seizure.  Instead they may mistakenly feel that I am not reliable, not attentive to work, or that I am obtaining special treatment.  In addition, the supervisor may not understand why a person with a psychiatric disability may require a flexible schedule.  Rather, they may believe the person wants to come in late or expects special treatment.

In addition, veterans returning from the war, may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury.  With PSTD, the service member may leave his or her desk when hearing the sound of a helicopter or airplane or smelling certain scents.  The veteran may relive those moments and may suddenly leave the workplace – why?  With traumatic brain injury, a service member may have short-term memory loss and need to record work assignments to be sure he or she does not forget.

You must always remember that you have the power to impact others. You have people watching you. Never be ashamed of your disability, whether it is hidden or not. Disability is just part of who you are. We can work together to break down barriers due to stigma, if we stop hiding.

Tony Coelho is one man with a hidden disability who does not hide.  He speaks to everyone about his epilepsy and has helped free millions of Americans with disabilities. As they say at the Epilepsy Foundation, just one person can make a difference if you come "out of the shadows."

While disclosure is a personal choice, I believe that after an person gains employment, they should consider disclosing their disability to their supervisor.  Please remember, employees are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the EEOC takes grievances seriously.  I am not advocating that you must disclose, but you should not be ashamed.  If you are working at a company that you believe will discriminate, you are working at the wrong place. 

I understand the fear of reprisal and I would never advocate talking about your disability on the job interview, whether it is hidden or not.  The employer is not permitted to ask you about your disability on an interview; that is a violation of the ADA and has no relevance to your skills or ability to do the job.

Shame causes inner conflict and anxiety every day at work for people with hidden disabilities who believe they must keep it a secret.  Remember, you should never be ashamed of your disability.  The real question is why we call it hidden … what about person with a disability. 

Lead on!

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