The idea that staff with disability should ‘disclose’ their disability is deeply problematic. This, of course, applies to those with ‘invisible disabilities’. If you are blind or in a wheelchair, or get around on crutches, the issue of ‘disclosure’ is pointless. This difference matters. In fact, it is very important.
There are 3 reasons to let it be known that you have a disability:
- You do need a formal workplace adjustment, so in specifying the needed adjustment some information about your disability is necessary.
- You need understanding and accommodation in your workplace to help your workmates understand your behaviour and adjust to ensure you are included. For example, I can’t stand around in a group with a drink and some food, so I sit down to eat and drink, usually by myself. That doesn’t mean I am being anti-social, but I discovered that was the assumption made.
- Your employer wants to know how many people with disability work in the organisation to make a judgement about how inclusive it is. This information is usually safely anonymous, but there is often anxiety over this.
Why is Disclosure a Problem?
The Big Question is why people do not ‘disclose’. It comes down to one thing. They fear discrimination – and rightly so. It can be career destroying.
People with visible disabilities have no choice in the matter – and least in terms of the fact of a disability. If they seek a workplace adjustment the reason for the adjustment is usually pretty apparent – although the rationale may not be so evident.
If staff with evident disability experience discrimination and exclusion the message is clear to the person whose disability is (mercifully) invisible. Often the least worst option it to suck it up and bear the discomfort or pain. Loss of respect and credibility is far worse. This is why executives (of whom there are many) with invisible disabilities stay quiet. Pain and discomfort are a small price to pay for career success. The trouble is that this is self-interest that perpetuates the very cultural environment they fear. If they do not trust the organisation’s culture, why should subordinate staff?
I have a very visible disability. I rely on Canadian crutches and my fingers are mostly curled, aside from my index fingers and thumbs – neither of which work well in any case. Visible disability builds a different kind of strength of character to that developed when you have to deal with insensitivity and discrimination in silence. People with invisible disability have to make a calculation on whether to ‘disclose’. They have a choice to make that it not available to people with obvious disability.
The Necessity of a Choice
So, the real issue is why this choice is necessary. At various times organisations mount campaigns to encourage ‘disclosure’. This is so they can find out how many staff with disability are employed. The intent is good, but they routinely fail because the benefits are all on the organisation’s side. Nobody asks the “What’s in it for me?” question on behalf of the staff whose ‘disclosure’ is sought. Neither is the question “How do we make it safe and advantageous to staff with non-apparent disability to tell us they have a disability?” asked.
Part of the problem is that the focus is on disability, and not the need for a workplace adjustment or accommodation. Workplace adjustments and accommodations are sought by staff for a wide variety of reasons. It maybe that disability had stimulated thinking about a wider array of needs in a more serious way. In any case a more flexible and accommodating approach to staff needs is now understood to be a crucial part of a contemporary inclusive workplace. We are diverse people with diverse needs.
Workplaces must be responsive to that diversity – and not on the basis of justifying a need by demanding disclosure of evidence. A parent seeking to work from home because of a sick child is not required to produce evidence of being a parent. It is assumed that a claim to be a parent is sufficient. Besides, being a parent is not a source of shame, or cause for discrimination.
A staff member with disability expects (and is entitled to) the same level of respect and trust.
Things Have Changed
As technology evolves and with both Apple and Microsoft driving tech inclusiveness, most current hardware and software accommodate an array of accessibility needs. The need for disability specific tech is reducing to significant and particular needs – like JAWS for blind staff.
Work health safety needs are increasingly recognised. The accessibility of buildings is acknowledged as a standard requirement, as is ensuring that fit outs and furnishings are accessible and appropriate. As these mostly physical solutions become part of the normal, the areas for workplace adjustments and accommodations focus on systems and working arrangements. This is a far more problematic area.
This is where we need to understand that misrepresentation of need to gain a personally advantageous accommodation or adjustment is a real risk. But it is very uncommon.
In a healthy and compassionate workplace staff will be protective of entitlements and privileges. Whether a workplace is of that character is down to an organisation’s leadership.
In a healthy and compassionate workplace, a need for a workplace adjustment or accommodation must be assumed to be coming from a place of genuine need – unless there are legitimate reasons for thinking otherwise.
The biggest barrier to disclosing a need is the actual or anticipated attitude and conduct of managers – the people who have the power to say yes or no – and to make a staff member bitterly regret saying anything.
Let’s Rethink What We Mean By Disability
As the definition of disability is progressively refined, the situational aspect is recognised more and more as a critical factor. Disablement can be contextual and temporally defined. If the context is global and the temporal scope is permanent that still has to do with a spectrum, rather than an absolute – at an extreme end, but still on a spectrum.
Few people in a workplace are at the extreme end of the disablement spectrum. This is why I prefer the term ‘person with disability’ over ‘disabled person’. Disability is part of a person’s attributes. It does not define them.
It is important to appreciate that disability is becoming an increasingly problematic term. The distinction between inability, lack of ability and disability must be blurred. What is the difference between a person who can’t dance because of a physical mobility disability or an introvert or a person with a social phobia about dancing? It is that for one it is accepted that they ‘can’t’ dance, and for the other it is assumed that they ‘won’t’.
How do we distinguish between ‘won’t’ and can’t’? Won’t means ‘has the ability but…’ But a won’t can be down to a psychological disability. Wont’s can be can’ts. Whether permanent or not is another question.
The idea that disability is permanent inability has legitimacy. But the social model of disability places an emphasis upon circumstance and environment. People who have no disability may nevertheless be disabled, and need a workplace adjustment or accommodation for a short or long time – just not permanently.
If we focus on need, rather than the cause, it still may be necessary to know the specifics of the cause of the need sometimes. The critical consideration is allowing the dignity of being trusted to express a need without being subject to a demand for proof. A workplace culture that provides that dignity will also be less likely to generate fear of ‘disclosure’.
Psychological disability is a major problem area because ignorance of the reality leads to misapplication of psychiatric terminology and precipitation of needless fear about a person’s capacity to perform in a role. I write about this in more detail in another post. Here I want to emphasis the huge problem of ‘disclosure’ faced by staff with a psychological disability because of the stigma associated with ‘mental illness.’
Is the Target the Right One?
In NSW the Premier has set a priority to have public sector agencies report that 5.6% of their workforce are people with disability by 2025. This is to reflect the composition of the NSW community and to ensure the public sector workforce’s diversity matches the state community’s diversity. This isn’t idealism. It aims to assure that the perspectives of the public sector workforce match and represent the community it serves.
But hitting this target is not about getting staff with disability to ‘disclose’. Rather, it is about removing the barriers to open expression of needs. Staff with disability are disabled in their desire to safely articulate their needs for adjustments and accommodations precisely because their employers have failed to make the workplace environment inclusive.
It could be that the 5.6% level has already been achieved, but it’s a secret because it’s not safe to say so.
The problem isn’t staff with disability declining to ‘disclose’. It’s the perpetuation a focus on disability rather than need, and a failure to grasp that it is the workplace culture, and the agency’s leadership, that is the problem. The staff member with disability is not the problem. If we don’t or won’t get this, the real problem is not going away, and the target will not be hit.
Secrets & Big News by PurpleSpace’s Kate Nash is a must read to understand the ‘disclosure’ problem. If your employer is a member of PurpleSpace a copy can be obtained through the membership part of the PurpleSpace website. Otherwise, if you contact me, I can send you the summary of Secrets & Big News’ research findings.
You can buy the full version of Secrets & Big News on Amazon and online booksellers like The Book Depository, but they are very expensive at over AUD $70.
Finally, I have written ‘disclosure’ this way because it is the term most commonly used, and it reveals a negative spirit. It’s like asking “What is wrong with you?” rather than “What can we do to help you do your best work?”
Well intentioned policies to ensure representation of community diversity in a workplace must focus on disability because that’s the metric used. But that must be separate and distinct from inclusion strategies – and never the twain should meet.