When I speak to corporate audiences, I often get questions about how and when someone should disclose a disability in the workplace. I don’t have a firm answer for that. For one, I do not have a human resources background or expertise in employment law, so I’m actually not comfortable advising people on what to do in the workplace. But also, there just isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question. There are so many variables: the workplace itself, the industry, the culture, the person’s position in the workplace, length of time employed, status of employment, and the disability itself.
Something I can speak to is why people might hesitate to disclose a disability in the workplace. Here are a few reasons….
- Stigma & bullying – There is a lot of stigma attached to disability, and particularly to certain conditions. People can behave cruelly. Someone with a disability might prefer to avoid the possibility of being bullied.
- Job/position security & prospects – There is worry that one’s job may be threatened if their ability to do that job is questioned. There is also fear of being passed up for a promotion because of inaccurate assumptions of ability.
- Discomfort of others – People can be awkward and uncomfortable on the topic of disability, whether in general or related to certain conditions and their symptoms. The choice to not disclose could be related to a fear of creating an awkward environment.
- Denial/downplaying – Coming out and speaking about disability means having to accept that there is a disability, and sometimes it’s difficult to personally accept the full connotations of being disabled.
- Privacy – A person could choose not to disclose simply because they’re a private person and don’t see their medical, cognitive, or mental health condition as anyone else’s business.
- Control – Controlling what others know about a disability means retaining control of their actions and assumptions about what a person is able to do.
With all that said, my best answer is that rather than a person with a disability worrying about when to disclose, I believe the coworkers and management should be aware of reasons why someone wouldn’t want to disclose and do their best to prevent those reasons from existing. And that “best” means letting someone with a disability make their own choices and set their own expectations as far as what they can do. Continue to give them every opportunity that anyone would be afforded. Foster a culture and environment that is inclusive and promotes diversity.
Rather than answering that question, I say, prevent the question from ever being asked.
Here are a few of my articles to help promote an inclusive environment:
- What is “Illness Shaming?” … and How to Knock It Off
- What Not to Say to Someone with a Hidden Disability
- 4 Things People with Disabilities Find Helpful When We’re “Out in the World”
- What I Want You to Ask Me About My Illness (and What I Don’t)
- 6 Ways to Include Universal Design at Your Holiday Event