How to make it safe for employees to disclose their disability

how to make it safe for employees to disclose their disability

Let me begin by saying that I do not like the term disclosure in relation to a person with a disability making the decision to tell another person about their disability.  I hear this term all the time but I prefer not to use it myself.

To me, it sounds punitive, as if they have done something wrong and now need to confess, when the truth of the matter (according to me anyway!) is that they are just making a statement of fact about themselves.  Now I am thinking there are some of you reading this and saying that is an overly simplistic statement and there are a lot of factors taken into consideration – but, it is still a statement of fact.  

The reaction to the statement of fact by colleagues, Managers, friends and others is the reasons why the decision to share (my word for disclosure) can be such a difficult one to make.  

This is where the problem lies – not in the fact that a person has a disability.

Disclosure Sharing of information is making a disability known or revealing a hidden disability. It is a person’s choice whether or not they tell anybody about their disability, there is no legal obligation to share that information and a person has a right to privacy.  I am sure that the decision to share or not to share is not taken lightly.

Factors that encourage Employees to share information about their disability

People with disabilities are most likely to share information when they need an accommodation to do their job or to take care of a health issue.  Having a supportive supervisor and a disability friendly workplace also helps.

Other potentially influencing factors include:

  • if there is awareness of positive outcomes for others who have previously shared information, 
  • the use of the word “disability” in a diversity statement, 
  • a belief that sharing this information will lead to new opportunities, 
  • pictures of people with disabilities on the employer’s website, 
  • a disability-related employee resource group
  • disability-focused recruiting materials and 
  • the inclusion of an individual with a disability in recruiting and job fairs.

 Factors That Discourage 

Where there is a belief or fear:

  • that their disability will result in losing their job – or failing to secure one
  • that revealing a disability may result in exclusion for promotion
  • that the TL/ Manager/Colleagues might not be supportive
  • of being treated differently – seen as less abled than others 
  • that colleagues might focus more on disability rather than on abilities 
  • of the risk of losing health care

And so, disability often remains enshrined in darkness, not openly spoken about. 

Of course, a person may choose not to share information because their disability had no impact on their ability to perform their job.

However, lack of sharing information about a disability could impact the workplace in a number of ways.  Employees are at risk of not performing to the best of their capability or putting their health at risk.  They may be constantly worried about trying to keep up that their mental health is adversely affected and at increased risk of absenteeism.  Accommodations for one person are often beneficial to all work colleagues and potential opportunities to make positive changes in work practices are being lost.

If employers are unaware of employees with a disability, they are unable to provide accommodations that would ensure they can work productivity. 

Is an employee’s fear of revealing a disability an indicator of their comfort level with sharing personal information?  I suggest it is more to do with the fact that it is an indicator of workplace culture, lack of inclusiveness or understanding of disability.

An article by Katie Bishop, November 2021 The workers keeping their disabilities secret, she reported:

  • In the UK, 17% of disabled adults had a job offer withdrawn as a result of their disability, and 30% said that they felt they were not taken seriously as a candidate as a result of their disability. 
  • In France, a study is referenced suggesting that fewer than 2% of people who mentioned that they had a disability in their CV were called for an interview. 
  • In the US, the unemployment rate for disabled individuals recently rose from 7% to 12.6%.

In Ireland, it is estimated that approximately 33% of people with disabilities are in employment, the fourth lowest rate in Europe

What can Employers Do?

As an employer, you play an important role in creating an environment where individuals feel safe and comfortable sharing information on their disability.  Accenture published a survey in 2021 and found that the vast majority of employees with disabilities did not feel their workplace culture was fully committed to helping them thrive and succeed. 

67% of the nearly 1,750 business executive respondents said they believe their companies support employees with disabilities, including having the right technologies in place to do so and the right environment.  PERCEPTION.

Only 20% of the 5,870 employees in the survey who had a disability agreed that their workplace culture is fully committed to helping them thrive and succeed. 

76% of employees with disabilities reported not fully sharing their disabilities at work while 80% of C-suite executives and their direct reports who have disabilities are also not sharing information. REALITY

If the C-Suite executives are not sharing, how can they expect to lead open, equitable and inclusive organisations where employees feel safe and comfortable to ask for assistance to do their job and earn a living????  

Creating such an environment does not have to cost the earth – and you are probably implementing strategies to achieve inclusive workplaces already.  

Below are some tips for you to consider that you may not have already:

  • Role Modeling – When senior management model inclusive behaviours and share their own disabilities, employees are more likely to be inspired, feel safer and share their own experiences 
  • Show evidence of active recruitment of people with disabilities
  • Facilitate disability awareness and inclusive practices training for all staff
  • Ensure accessible workplaces and communications
  • Foster supportive supervisor-staff relationships
  • Include disability in the diversity statement
  • Enact flexible workplace policies
  • Avoid focusing on an individual’s disabilities, instead enable capability
  • Ensure mechanisms are in place to support employees plan their return to work after absence

Incidentally, the Accenture research also found that employees who do share information about their disability at work are 30% more engaged — in terms of career satisfaction and aspirations, confidence, and a sense of belonging — than those who don’t.  WORTH KNOWING.

If you have any questions on how to ensure your employees feel safe to share, disclose, talk about their disabilities in the workplace – email [email protected]. Let’s talk!