Creating a workplace that’s inclusive to people with disabilities starts with knowing how many of your employees actually live with a disability. But at most companies, only a small percentage of people who have a disability disclose this.
According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, among white-collar, college-educated employees, 30 percent have a disability. But only 3.2 percent disclose their disability to their employers. That means about a quarter of your staff may have a disability that you don’t know about.
“The decision to formally disclose is a personal one that employees make on a case-by-case basis,” says James Emmett, a disability inclusion expert and lead workplace strategist with Understood.
But employers have a lot to gain from encouraging employees to disclose. Here are some of the benefits of disability disclosure in your business, the top reasons people may not disclose, and steps you can take to encourage disclosure.
Why employees may not disclose
For someone with an apparent physical disability, there’s often a backstory to their disability that they may or may not choose to divulge. For example, someone who walks with a limp may have cerebral palsy, or have had some type of injury, or may use a prosthetic.
And employees with invisible disabilities — physical, mental, or neurological conditions that can’t be seen from the outside — may be afraid of discrimination. “It’s easier for them to cover their disability. And many invisible disabilities, like mental illness or learning disabilities, often have a significant stigma attached to them,” says Emmett.
Employees with disabilities may worry that their relationships with co-workers will change, or that their manager will see them as less capable. They may be concerned about fewer opportunities for career advancement. Or they may see no personal benefit to disclosing.
The benefits of disability disclosure for your business
Getting more employees to disclose their disabilities can help your organization in a multitude of ways: from recruitment and retention of staff to revenue and growth of the company.
1. Increased job satisfaction: People who disclose their disabilities are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work as those who have not disclosed, according to a Center for Talent Innovation report. And one study found that “a perception of inclusion impacts employees’ reported job satisfaction, commitment, and productivity.”
2. More energy for innovation: It can be draining for anyone to hide a significant part of their identity. “When people feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work, their sense of well-being improves,” says Emmett. “That kind of culture can lead to more collaboration and innovation.”
For the clinical laboratory company Quest Diagnostics, inclusivity and innovation go hand in hand. “Our ability to evolve, expand, and innovate relies on a culture that is inclusive and respects all employees and seeks and supports their contributions,” says Linda Behmke, Quest’s corporate engagement and human resources compliance manager.
3. Better performance from employees: Accommodations can help people with disabilities perform at their highest level. “You can’t provide accommodations to the people who would benefit if you don’t know who they are,” says Emmett. Similarly, organizations can’t leverage the unique perspectives and experiences of employees with disabilities if they’re not visible.
4. Meeting compliance goals: “One of the most basic benefits for employers is compliance,” says Emmett. According to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, any company that has a contract or subcontract with the federal government needs 7 percent of its workforce to self-identify as people with disabilities. To meet this target, companies need to be able to measure disabilities in the workplace.
Strategies to encourage employees to disclose disabilities
For some employees, deciding to disclose a disability is a gradual process. It may start with checking the “yes” box on an anonymous survey, then disclosing to a manager, and then to certain colleagues. People often base their decision on the workplace culture and how they see other employees with disabilities being treated.
So, what are the most effective ways for a company to encourage employees to disclose disabilities?
1. Make employees feel comfortable sharing. Employers (and, importantly, managers) need to create a work environment where employees with disabilities feel safe enough to disclose their conditions. That happens when employees trust that their managers won’t treat them differently and will help make adjustments to better accommodate their needs.
If managers ask their employees what they need to succeed, that opens up the line of communication. Encourage your managers to have conversations about what could make work more fulfilling and meaningful for their team members.
2. Communicate your company’s focus on inclusion. Three years ago, Quest Diagnostics decided to actively recruit people with autism spectrum disorder as a way to tap into a qualified talent pool and reduce turnover.
Led by the company’s disability-focused employee business network, DiverseAbilities, the initiative included disability awareness training for managers and co-workers. And it’s been as valuable for employee morale as for the education it’s provided.
“The employees appreciate the fact that we expect them to be inclusive, and consider them integral to the program’s success,” says Behmke. “It also makes them feel good to work at a place that values diversity and people with disabilities.”
3. Let employees know how they can benefit from disability disclosure. Surveys that encourage employees to disclose their disabilities are also becoming more common. These can be voluntary questionnaires in which employees are invited to share if they have a disability.
In some surveys, employees remain anonymous. In others, they provide their names. The information remains confidential and is kept separately from the employee’s personnel file.
But “you need to define what’s in it for them,” says Emmett. That answer will vary depending on the employee.
4. Promote access to accommodations. A common reason an employee will disclose their disability is to receive accommodations. “If you find it arduous to read daily memos on procedure changes because you have dyslexia, hiding your struggle can take a lot out of you,” says Emmett.
With the right support, an employee with disabilities can perform their job at an optimal level. Make sure you explain the process for requesting accommodations and the timeline for getting a response.
5. Broadcast success stories. Putting a public face on disabilities often encourages more people to disclose. A 2013 report about disability disclosure noted key factors that influenced the decision to disclose. In an open-ended question, some respondents highlighted their interest in serving as an example of success as a valued employee with disabilities in their organization’s workforce.
6. Create employee resource groups (ERGs) that focus on disabilities. A disability-focused employee resource group (ERG) is an empowering way for employees with disabilities to network with each other. These groups may discuss hiring practices, business strategies pertaining to people with disabilities, and other topics of interest.
7. Provide opportunities for career advancement. When employees see their peers with disabilities participating in mentoring programs, getting promoted, and being valued for their feedback and opinions, it signals to them that the company takes inclusion seriously.
The bottom line about disability disclosure
Employees with disabilities are much more likely to disclose when their workplace culture is inclusive. And when employees feel accepted for who they are, and are comfortable asking for accommodations, they’re more productive, more engaged in their work, and better able to share unique perspectives. That makes for a workplace that’s better for everyone.
About the author
About the author
Molly Touger is a writer and instructional designer based in Brooklyn, New York.
James Emmett, MS is the lead workplace strategist for Understood, supporting our efforts to create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities.