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Navigating Disability Disclosure

leadership transition Jun 04, 2024
hearing aid work

- By Sophie Pinkoski

In the journey toward fostering fully inclusive work environments, it's essential that the deeply personal nature of disclosing disabilities in the workplace is recognized. While the ideal is to create psychologically safe spaces where everyone feels comfortable being their authentic selves, the potential risks and complexities individuals face when deciding to disclose must be acknowledged.  

Many people living with disabilities and health make the difficult choice not to disclose their specific needs at all.

According to an Accenture survey, only 24% of individuals disclose their disabilities. Fairfield University associate professor, Sonya Huber sheds light on these statistics, stating that “It’s difficult to disclose at work because most of us know about cases of overt or covert discrimination in employment. People are frightened for good reason”. Even with laws like the Accessible Canada Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S., protecting people from being fired or overlooked in the hiring process due to their disability, discrimination can still manifest in other ways. According to GitNux, 61% of workers in 2021 reported experiencing ableist discrimination. The high regularity of discrimination against disability in the workplace means the decision to disclose is never straightforward. On one hand, disclosing may lead individuals to receiving access to accommodations that will best support their well-being, efficiency, and productivity. On the other, the reality of stigma, discrimination, and ableism is a distinct possibility. As leaders, it's therefore crucial to cultivate a culture of trust and support where individuals feel empowered to disclose their needs without fear of judgment or negative consequences.  

Here are some key factors individuals consider when choosing to disclose: 

Everyone has unique priorities–– There will be several pros and cons to be weighed before someone can make an informed decision on whether to disclose. Often these considerations are more complex than simply whether to disclose at all. This is a question of when to disclose to whom and how. They may choose to disclose at any stage, from applying and interviewing for the position, to once they’re already settled into their role. The fear of discrimination at any step of the way will determine whether they feel it’s appropriate to share their disability, paired with assessing their ability to successfully carry out their work without accommodations. 

Some people will be safer to disclose to than others–– No matter whether it’s in a new job or with a familiar team, it’s difficult to gage how people will react to disclosure of a disability. An organization’s culture will ultimately determine whether it’s safe to disclose. An individual might wait to find a person they can trust, who will treat the situation with empathy and understanding. If there is someone on the team who has already received similar accommodations, they may come to them for advice on how to proceed. They will know who to talk to and the appropriate language to address the necessary supports. Leaders should strive to be open about the accommodations and policies already in place to alleviate the anxiety surrounding an individual’s choice to disclose. 

There are a number of reasons why individuals would choose not to disclose, here are ways you can create a psychologically safe environment where they do feel comfortable to do so: 

Empower the team with a strengths-based approach–– Adopt a strengths-based approach that highlights what team members can do, rather than what they can’t.

Give them the tools to identify and leverage their strengths.

This way, when someone does disclose their disability, they can lead with what they know they are capable of, instead of focusing on their limitations. From there, solutions can be brainstormed together to help strengthen those capacities while finding ways to accommodate their biggest challenges. Individuals will feel much more comfortable disclosing if they are confident that their leader believes in their ability to do their job.

Challenge ableist attitudes to create a more inclusive workplace–– Foster a culture of inclusivity by challenging ableist attitudes and behaviors. These can be overt discrimination in the form of gossip, or more subtle ableism (excluding individuals from development opportunities, assuming they would be too difficult for them to handle). Educating the team about conscious and unconscious biases to break these toxic habits. Have open, honest conversations about existing policies and accommodations in place to raise awareness toward everyone’s options. Transparently addressing flexible work options both gives them confidence to disclose and builds their trust in you. 

Implement direct supports to accommodate individual needs–– A common misconception is that implementing accommodations can be both expensive and time consuming. Yet the Job Accommodation Network has found that it costs less than $500 to access assistive technology and in fact, 56% of accommodations cost nothing to employ. There are many different types of assistive technology according to individual needs. For instance, speech generating services (SGDs) and text to speech screen readers can help those with speech impairment, while assisted listening devices (ALDs) will aid with different abilities of hearing. The office itself can also be updated to accommodate limited mobility by shifting to open plan spaces and adjustable desks for improved wheelchair access. 

It is the responsibility of leaders to ensure that every team member feels valued and confident in bringing their whole selves to work. Creating a psychologically safe work environment where they feel comfortable disclosing disabilities is an ongoing journey that requires commitment, empathy, and proactive measures. Through a culture of trust and support, leaders can empower their teams to share their needs without fear of judgment or discrimination. This not only enables individuals to access the accommodations they need to thrive, but also fosters a more inclusive workplace for the team at large. 


Further Reading 

Breaking Barriers: The Role of Technology, Rick Hansen Foundation

 Accessible Communication Services (ACS) Wavefront Centre for Communication Accessibility

Assistive Technology For Your Workplace, PDQ

How to Weigh the Risks of Disclosing a Disability, Harvard Business Review

The Time is Now For Organizations to Put Disability on Their Leadership Agenda, Rick Hansen Foundation

Inclusive Workplaces: It’s More Than Just Getting in the Door, Rick Hansen Foundation

Breaking Down Barriers: The Rick Hansen Foundation Designs a Fully Accessible Office, Rick Hansen Foundation

Employment Services for Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing individuals, Wavefront Centre for Communication Accessibility

Make it Safe for Employees to Disclose Their Disabilities, Harvard Business Review

4 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Disability Inclusion Practices, Harvard Business Review

Only 4% of Employees Disclose a Disability, But New Tools and Training Could Upend that Trend, Forbes

5 Steps to Disclosing an Invisible Disability at Work, The Muse

Disability Disclosure: Employer and Employee Perspective, Accessibility.com

The Why’s and How’s of Disclosure, Integrated Advisors

Navigating Disclosure: What Employees Need to Know, Canadian Mental Health Association

How to Disclose a Disability to Your Employer (And Whether You Should), New York Times

A Job Coach’s Tips on Disclosure in the Workplace, ConnectABILITY

Simple Accommodations for Deaf Employees You May Have Never Considered, SHRM

Accommodating Deaf and Hard of Hearing of Employees, Sure Hire

Accessible Remote Work Meetings for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Employees, Hearing Loss Association of America

A Guide to Accommodating Employees Who are Deaf, Verbit

Accommodation and Compliance: Deafness, Job Accommodation Network

Remote Workplace Communications Access: Recommendations for Employers During Times of Expanded Telework, Hearing Loss Association of America

Communicating with Hard-of-Hearing Colleagues, Mind Tools

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