A New Report Shares the Reality of Coming Out With a Disability in the Workplace
By AnnaMarie Houlis
A new research report from Working Mother Research Institute suggests that people with autism, mental health and cognitive disabilities be open about who they are and what they need. As it turns out, being upfront won’t necessarily cost someone their job. In fact, the payoffs are significant for both employees and their employers.
“The work experience — from the application/interview process through onboarding and then to successfully handling a job and being promoted — is very different for people with non-apparent disabilities,” reads the report, titled “Uncovering Hidden Potential: Non-Apparent Disabilities in the Workplace.” “Recruiters, hiring managers, supervisors and co-workers are often prepared when an employee with obvious disabilities is considered or hired. However, when the employee has a non-apparent disability, the visual cues of disability are not obvious and, therefore, the employer may not be sensitive to the need for accommodations. The applicant/employee may choose not to disclose a non-apparent disability for a variety of reasons, and the resulting communications gap can lead to negative perceptions for both the employer and the applicant/employee.”
The report surveyed 1,604 working people with the aforementioned disabilities through an online questionnaire administered by Bonnier Custom Insights. It found that most participants reported multiple disabilities, and employees who disclosed them (53 percent) were more satisfied and engaged at work than those who didn’t disclose them (47 percent).
The main reason employees didn’t disclose their disabilities was because they don’t believe their disabilities interfere with their jobs, so mentioning them isn’t worth it. Because of that, 30 percent were uncomfortable sharing the information, 11 percent didn’t want their employers to know, and another 11 percent said their employer didn’t ask so they didn’t feel it necessary to bring up.
While 87 percent of the people surveyed are at risk of leaving their employer, the report suggests that effective communication between the employee and employer could change the game. While employers seem to be providing better accommodation to employees with disabilities than they once did, increased communication can only help the process. Of those who did disclose their disabilities, 75 percent requested accommodations and 88 percent of those had all or some of their requests approved.
But that’s not all — on top of approving requests, companies may want to consider communicating those approvals company wide.
“Even when an employee discloses a disability to HR or a supervisor, in a culture where people are uncomfortable discussing disabilities, co-workers may erroneously perceive someone getting ‘special treatment’ because the reason for the accommodation is not obvious or apparent,” the report reads. “That too can create a stressful and an unproductive work environment… The unique experience of these employees in the workplace needs to be understood and defined so that employers can create successful employee value propositions and inclusive environments in which they can thrive.”
And on top of providing better accommodations so employees with disabilities can thrive, the largest noted influence on overall employee satisfaction was having a role model with disabilities in their organization.
But in order to accommodate employees with disabilities and give them role models, companies need to hire more employees with disabilities — and this hiring process may look different.
Dave Kearon of Autism Speaks noted in the report that some interviewers are revamping their process for candidates with autism, for example.
“Because of the nature of their disability, these candidates have difficulty communicating,” he explains. “These employers were willing to throw [the normal process] out the window and try something new. These alternate assessments allow the employers to hire, for example, better software developers not by conversational interviews but by giving them tasks to perform.”
People with autism offered specific input about the hiring process, as well. Sixty-five percent say they “would have liked the opportunity to show their skills through a different kind of assessment instead of a traditional interview.”
As companies look to acquire and retain talent with all different skills and perspectives and as more companies hire disabled workers, they should think about how their hiring processes and office cultures affect all different types of candidates and employees.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards and career advice.