Whether or not to disclose a disability at work is an important and potentially stressful decision. Decisions about disclosure and the responses of supervisors and coworkers to this information can significantly influence employees’ workplace experiences. Concern about possible mistreatment in the workplace is a primary reason why individuals with disabilities are reluctant to disclose. Disclosure decisions may be especially difficult for individuals whose physical or mental health conditions are nonvisible or concealable, who may determine that it is better to “pass” as nondisabled, than to risk adverse treatment by supervisors and peers in response to a known disability. However, even individuals whose disabilities are apparent (such as people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids), often find that they need to consider when, how, how much, and with whom to share information about their disability.
Types of Disclosure
Under The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a job seeker or employee must disclose a disability when requesting a reasonable accommodation for a job interview, or in order to perform essential job functions. Initially, the individual need only advise that an accommodation is requested due to a medical or health issue; this begins an interactive dialogue with the employer. In some instances, more specific information may be needed in order for the employer to determine a reasonable, effective, accommodation. Of course, less formal types of disclosure also occur, such as when a person tells trusted colleagues about their disability while developing workplace friendships.
Disclosure Decisions: Pros and Cons
Disclosing a disability as part of requesting an accommodation can be beneficial. If a disability negatively impacts one’s ability to perform essential job tasks, an effective accommodation can help the person to retain the job. However, disclosure can also have drawbacks. For instance, individuals who disclose may face stigma, negative stereotypes, or be treated as less capable by supervisors and coworkers once a disability is disclosed.
In a recent study of work-life balance among workers with disabilities by the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University, 97 percent of participants reported that they had disclosed to at least one workplace colleague—typically to a coworker or supervisor, and less often to Human Resources (HR) or the Equal Opportunity/Diversity Office.
Study participants described a range of experiences in disclosing their disability. While the vast majority of disclosure experiences were reportedly positive, or neutral, there were some cases of negative responses from each of these types of colleagues.
|Did not disclose||8%||8%||30%||49%|
Among respondents who reported negative disclosure experiences, there was a wide range of outcomes, including significant job consequences, such as feeling forced to quit, excessive work expectations, increased monitoring, invasive questioning, lost opportunities for advancement, and even termination.
Issues related to disclosure were also noted in study participants’ responses to questions about experiences of workplace harassment and discrimination. For example, one participant with a self-described “invisible” disability reported being “forced to disclose” why they had an accessible parking placard, explaining, “I was never so humiliated. (The employer) demanded I bring medical proof; and I’ve had this hang tag for over ten years and only worked at this job three weeks.” Another participant summed up their experience of workplace discrimination stating, “More than once details of an accommodation request were shared with people who did not need to know.”
Practical Considerations/Protected Choice
Whether or not to disclose a disability and what details to share about it, are personal decisions. Deciding not to disclose is a legally protected choice, unless an individual is requesting a workplace accommodation.
Study participants described the different ways in which they had planned for or staged their disclosure to maximize the chance of it being a positive experience. Some participants disclosed only partial information – either not sharing information about all of their disabilities (in instances where they had two or more conditions) or only sharing limited information about the impact of their disability. Others spoke about establishing relationships within the organization before disclosing or sharing pieces of information over time, rather than all at once.
As these findings suggest, disclosure decisions may differ depending on the particular job, workplace climate/culture, nature of disability, and whether or not an accommodation is needed. Some questions to consider when deciding whether or not to disclose a disability at work include:
Is a disability negatively affecting the ability to do essential job functions?
Who needs/has a right to this information within the organization?
When should the information be shared?
What is the workplace protocol for disclosure (i.e., Are all accommodation requests handled by HR?)
What are the potential benefits and possible drawbacks of disclosing in this job, at this time, in this organization? (In terms of personal well-being, job retention, workplace inclusion, workplace advancement, etc.)
Disclosing a disability in the workplace has potential benefits and negative consequences. There are personal and workplace factors that need to be considered. Ultimately, each person must decide for themselves.
by LaWanda Cook, PhD
Healthy Living Initiatives Lead, Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. The Work-Life Balance and Disability Study is funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research.