New research shows many employees with invisible disabilities don’t disclose them to their employers, and this impacts the safety of the worker, co-workers and even the public.
A very small percentage of employees with concealable disabilities actually disclose this information to employers, according to Northern Illinois University researcher Alecia Santuzzi.
An example of how this impacts safety: An employee suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result, his sleep is disrupted. However, he’s assigned to the 7 a.m. shift at work and often arrives fatigued. Possible accommodation: Re-assign him to the shift that starts at 3 p.m., giving him more time to catch up on sleep before reporting to work.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals as long as they don’t create undue hardship to the organization.
Other examples of invisible disabilities are: depression, dyslexia, panic attacks, diabetes, cancer, hearing or sight impairment, and HIV.
Why are employees reluctant to report these invisible disabilities to their employers? Santuzzi says there are a number of potential reasons:
- Denial. People don’t accept their own disabilities. Example: A person with depression might think to himself that there’s nothing wrong with feeling a little blue every once in a while.
- Social stigma. Workers don’t want to be treated differently because of their disability.
- Potential misperceptions among co-workers. Confidentiality prevents employers from disclosing to co-workers that an employee is receiving accommodations for a disability. Without this information, co-workers may think the employee is getting “special” treatment.
- Perceived legitimacy of the disability. Workers with non-obvious disabilities are more likely to receive negative reactions from co-workers compared to people with obvious disabilities. Example: Co-workers might question whether a person with spinal stenosis is faking back pain.
- Lack of awareness. Symptoms of lesser known disabilities are less likely to be detected, diagnosed or treated.
- Burden of proof. Under current law, a worker must prove he or she has a disability. Workers with an unseen disability might feel insecure about the nature of their condition.
- Legal ambiguity. A condition must interfere with at least one major life activity to qualify as a disability. What constitutes a major life activity can be subject to legal interpretation.
Santuzzi says much more analysis is needed on the issue of invisible disabilities and the workplace.
For now, the best bet might be to partner with HR and educate supervisors and employees about unseen disabilities and how they might affect workplace safety.