One of the most impactful components of the employment regulations associated with the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) was that employers could no longer ask questions about medications and disability when considering individuals for hiring or promotional opportunities. For the first time, people like me, who have a disability that is not visible, could not be declined employment based on a question asked during an interview or on an application. For the first time, I could apply for a job without having to list my epilepsy medication or my epilepsy as a condition.
This July, we celebrated the 28th anniversary of the ADA, yet stigma still has a strong impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Stigma plays a factor in how children with disabilities interact with their teachers and classmates, places limitations at the college level for young adults with disabilities, and influences decisions to hire or promote employees with disabilities. Stigma also has an impact on employee self-disclosure, both of people with visible and non-visible disabilities. While there are many people with disabilities who are proud of their cultural identification as a person with a disability, there are many others who fear being labeled and seen as ‘different’ or ‘less than’. With the unemployment rate being nearly twice that of our non-disabled counterparts and nearly 70% of working aged people with disabilities being identified as outside the labor force, this fear is a natural reaction to discrimination in the workplace.
For people with visible disabilities, not checking the disability self-disclosure box is often a statement of their desire for colleagues to see them as equal and not ‘other’. Making the conscious decision to deny association with disability is often a way of disassociating with the stigma of people with disabilities.
For people with disabilities that are not visible, hiding their disability may be a result of a conscious or unconscious decision to disassociate with the stigma of being labeled as having a disability or, and this is more often the case, they are hiding their disability for fear of discrimination.
With discrimination and stigma being a strong reason for not disclosing, what can you do as an employer to encourage people with disabilities to check the self-disclosure box?
Address Organizational Barriers to Hiring People with Disabilities
Fear of being overlooked when hiring decisions are made will prevent people with disabilities from disclosing during the recruitment and screening process, even if they have a visible disability. The best way of creating an environment where people with disabilities will disclose during this part of the process is to ensure that your organization is viewed as open to hiring people with disabilities. Here are some tips for making that happen:
· Ensure people with a variety of disabilities are visible in your ads and social media.
· Include disability in your diversity statements.
· Ensure your application process is accessible to people with disabilities.
· Ensure your customer service associates are trained on how to effectively communicate with and handle accommodation requests from customers with disabilities.
· Ensure your human resources representatives are trained on disability inclusion strategies.
· Ensure your hiring managers and interviewing teams are trained on disability inclusion strategies.
· Hire people with disabilities in public facing job roles.
Incorporate Training to Promote Inclusion Enterprise-wide
How is disability talked about in your organization? What are your employees with hidden disabilities hearing managers and colleagues say about other employees with disabilities? Training across the footprint of the organization, and at all levels, on diversity inclusion is crucial to the success of your organization’s ability to create a welcoming and engaging environment where people with disabilities feel empowered to disclose.
Nothing will work against your organization’s goals of getting employees to self-disclose more than the workforce’s attitude toward employees with disabilities. You can have the best diversity team and leadership support, but if the general workforce does not understand what it means to be inclusive and what stigma in the workplace looks like for people with disabilities, you will see little traction or change.
Two of the biggest factors with regards to attitude to ensure your employees are aware perpetuates the stigma associated with disability are pity and assigning too much emphasis or heroics on the ability to complete everyday tasks.
People with disabilities do not want to be pitied. Viewing people with disabilities with pity removes expectation of performance and independence and adds to the myth that people with disabilities are not capable. Don’t limit the success of people with disabilities by ‘feeling bad’, making assumptions about their abilities, or placing fewer goals in front of them.
People with disabilities do not want to be viewed as having superhuman powers when accomplishing the same things that people without disabilities take for granted. This is just another form of pity. For people with disabilities, performing everyday tasks are as commonplace as for people without disabilities. These tasks are just accomplished in another way. People with disabilities do not want to be viewed with awe because people aren’t sure of how they would accomplish their tasks with a disability. People with disabilities know that the answer to that is with practice, just as they learned one method of accomplishing goals, another can be learned.
My good friend, Tony Coelho, one of the authors of the American’s with Disabilities Act, has said “give me the opportunity to fail, as well as succeed.” According to Tony, “jobs are the great equalizer in our society.”
Ensure Representation is Visible
Many companies that I visit, take time to show me all the things they have done architecturally to make their organization accessible for people with disabilities. Yet, when I look around, I find myself asking, where are the people with disabilities? If I am noticing the lack of representation of people with disabilities, so are those within the organization who have hidden disabilities. For employees to feel comfortable with self-disclosure, they need to know the organizational culture is inclusive of people with disabilities. The best way to do this is to hire people with disabilities.
When it comes to disability inclusion visibility, start with making it okay to say the word disability. Coming up with other names for disability only perpetuates stigma associated with disability by making it seem like being a part of this group is something that is undesirable. Instead ensure the word disability is visible in your representation of this group of people.
Have a disability resource group that is visible to the disability community within your organization. Ensure that people with non-visible disabilities are aware of their inclusion in this group. In some instances, people who have non-visible disabilities may think their disability is not seen as a disability, making them feel unwelcome in the group. Making it clear that this group is there to support both people with visible or non-visible disabilities, such as epilepsy, MS, diabetes, cancer, learning disabilities, mental health disabilities, etc. will go a long way to making people with all disabilities feel included within your organization. Ensure the focus of this group is aligning with company resources, promoting disability culture, and identifying employee development opportunities.
If your organization has members of the leadership team who are people with disabilities, this is another way of showing visibility. If leaders in the company are open to talking about having a disability, it will go a long way to make people with disabilities feel comfortable with self-disclosure.
Confidentiality is Key
Remember, that ultimately, self-disclosure is a very personal choice for many people with disabilities. Associated stigma and the individual person’s exposure to it will impact their decision as to whether or not to disclose. For some, self-disclosure is seen as a way of demonstrating personal pride and for others self-disclosure is something to be avoided. The more that disability inclusion is woven into the fabric of the organization, the more people with disabilities will make the decision to self-disclose. As that happens, it is key that organizations remember to be mindful of the trust that is being placed in them when disability is disclosed. Ensure a process for self-disclosure that protects the person with a disability’s privacy as well. Make sure that employees understand that confidentiality is a part of their decision to self-disclose and explain why disclosure is important to your diversity goals.