Why People Hide Their Disabilities at Work

By Matt Dallisson, 06/06/2019

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Work is stressful. If you’re hiding a disability, the daily grind of early mornings, deadlines, and office politics is compounded into a far heavier burden. You live in fear of being discovered. You work overtime to mask your authentic self. But you aren’t alone.

In the Center for Talent Innovation’s “Disabilities and Inclusion” study, we discovered that a full 30% of the professional workforce fits the current federal definition of having a disability — and the majority are keeping that status a secret. Only 39% of employees with disabilities have disclosed to their manager. Even fewer have disclosed to their teams (24%) and HR (21%). Almost none (4%) have revealed their disability to clients.

Some have no choice but to disclose. In our survey, 13% of employees told us that their disability (or at least one of their disabilities if they reported multiple) was visible; they wear this aspect of their identity for the world to see. Employees in this group may use a wheelchair, rely on a seeing eye dog, or have a prosthetic limb. But well over half of employees (62%) reported that their disability is invisible, agreeing with the statement, “unless I tell them, people do not know that I have a disability.” Invisible disabilities include depression and other mental health conditions, ADHD, and diabetes, among many others. For another 26%, their disability can be visible or invisible, depending on the circumstances. Someone who has low vision, for example, may only use a cane in unfamiliar places. Because so many disabilities are invisible (or sometimes invisible), most people with disabilities must deliberately decide when, whether, and with whom to share their disability status.

In our study, we calculated the value of disclosing this aspect of your identity: Employees with disabilities who disclose to most people they interact with are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than employees with disabilities who have not disclosed to anyone (65% versus 27%). They are also less likely to regularly feel nervous or anxious (18% versus 40%) or isolated (8% versus 37%).

Through interviews, we see the long-term boon of incorporating your disability status into your leadership brand. Take Chris Schlechty, a software development engineer for Microsoft who has muscular dystrophy. In addition to his primary job responsibilities, he serves as his team’s “accessibility driver,” ensuring that products meet the needs of people with all kinds of disabilities. “If there’s an engineering question around accessibility, Chris is the first person you go to,” his coworker Melissa shares. Chris’s unique insight allows him to identify unmet market needs and innovate for his employer — all because of his disability.

With personal and professional rewards available to those who disclose, why hide your disability?

Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has explicitly prohibited disability-based discrimination. But the abstract reality of employee protection clauses belies the day-to-day work experience, in which a dominant work culture may implicitly signal — if not explicitly encourage — conformity. Professionals with disabilities have expressed to us a myriad of reasons for hiding their identities: They fear teasing or harassment. They worry their relationships with coworkers will change. Many express concerns that their manager might see them as lazy or less capable, and that their career progress will stall as a result.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet solution. But once you test the culture of inclusivity at your workplace, there are steps you can take toward disclosure, relieving the stress of keeping things bottled up.

Look for signals of support. There are different ways organizations signal to potential hires and employees that they take inclusion seriously and will support an employee who discloses a disability. During the hiring process, they will work to make a good first impression, creating transparency around accommodation requests on their career site and during the application and onboarding processes. Check to see if your employer lists disability in their diversity statement and clearly highlights disability affinity networks, mentor programs, and the accommodations process during new employee orientation and on their website.

Get to know your manager. Among employees who disclose, the majority disclose to their direct manager. This makes sense, as managers directly impact access to equipment and can help with workload and flexibility. At CTI, we’ve identified six traits that signal an inclusive leader: They make sure everyone gets heard, offer actionable feedback, take advice, empower team members, make it safe to propose ideas, and share credit for team success. When employees with disabilities have inclusive leaders, they are far less likely to experience discrimination or bias. If your boss exhibits inclusive behaviors, it’s a much safer bet for disclosure.

Identify an ally. If you don’t feel comfortable disclosing to your manager, seek out a peer you trust. And if even this proves challenging, research to see if your company has a formal allyship program. Accenture’s mental health ally program, now available in 17 countries, for example, trains employees to act as a first point of contact for colleagues living with a mental health condition. Now 3,000 people trained to listen, provide information on resources, and help connect employees to professional support. “Talking openly and visibly destigmatizes the topic and builds the sense that it’s okay to let people know your true self,” says Kirsten Doherty, manager in inclusion and diversity at Accenture in the UK.

Join (or start) an ERG. Employee resource group or affinity groups for employees with disabilities, as well as for caregivers, are increasingly common. Among the companies that participated in Disability:IN’s 2017 Disability Equality Index, 88% have a disability-focused ERG or affinity organization, and 76% have an online chat function that connects employees to fellow colleagues with disabilities. In addition to finding an empathetic community, these groups can guide you toward resources and employee offerings — even if you are not ready to open up about your disability to your team or managers.

If you have an invisible disability, it is your right to disclose it on your own time line, if at all. But if your company culture, or even just one ally, sets the stage for disclosure, choosing to do so can help you thrive. Imagine the possibility of decreased stress and the ability to engage with your work, and your workplace, as your whole self.

This content was originally published here.