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Thoughts on Disclosing a Disability

Individuals with “invisible” disabilities are often faced with the decision as whether they should self-identify to an employer.  Even professionals with physical disabilities may have conditions which are not readily visible. Should they disclose? Let’s examine this question and why the decision to self-identify can be difficult.

One of the strongest reasons why the decision to self-identify is so difficult is that there is a great deal of fear surrounding disability in our society among people with and without disabilities.  The image of a person with a disability in our society is of someone who in some way has less ability to function within our society.  At best, people with disabilities who succeed are seen as “heroic” for “overcoming” the disability and the rest of the disability community is viewed with fear and pity. Given this view of disability, why would one want to identify oneself as a person with a disability if he or she can “pass” for an “able-bodied” person?

Unfortunately society does not view disability for what it is: a natural part of the human condition. Every human being who lives long enough will experience a disability at some time during his or her lifetime. Perhaps it is the inevitability of disability which makes it so frightening to those who are presently and temporarily “able-bodied”.

Given society’s image of disability, it is natural that people with invisible disabilities are hesitant to self-identify for fear of losing their jobs, losing the opportunity to advance in their career and or losing the respect of their co-workers and peers.

As a person with a disability, I know that this description of people with disabilities and how we are viewed by society sounds very disheartening, but it is important to express this “picture” of disability when we talk about the challenge which most people with disabilities face when they consider self-identifying. It can be a frightening proposition.

After the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, persons with disabilities were advised to self-identify only if a reasonable accommodation was necessary in order to fulfill the “essential functions” of a job.  This disclosure protects the employee from discrimination if there is a possibility that a disability would affect work performance.  Protection under the ADA is afforded only to those who disclose a disability to an employer. The enactment of the ADA and its protections for individuals with disabilities influenced more people to make the decision to self-identify. However, some individuals, out of fear of being identified as a person with disability declined to self-identify and therefore lost the needed protection of the ADA.

In 2008, the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAA) greatly broadened the definition of disability to include such conditions as heart disease and diabetes; common medical conditions which were not previously considered disabilities.  Even the ADAA has not lessened the fear surrounding self-identification.

In March of 2014, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 which governs the employment of people with disabilities by federal contractors was revised to require that federal contractors actively recruit and hire individuals with disabilities. Larger contractors (50 or more employees and $50,000.00 in contracts) are required to write an affirmative action plan for the hiring of people with disabilities and all federal contractors doing more than $10,000.00 of business with the government have a utilization goal of having a their workforce in which 7% are people with disabilities.  Part of the regulation requires that all job applicants fill out a form in which individuals with disabilities self-identify as a person with a disability both pre and post hiring and that incumbent employees are asked to self-identify at the commencement of the new regulation and every five years.  The form, supplied by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is anonymous and used for keeping track of the number of individuals with disabilities who have applied for employment, who have been hired and who already work for the particular federal contractor.  With the implementation of the Revised Section 503, an employee of a federal contractor who has a disability is now requested to self-identify as an individual with a disability in order for that contractor to reach the 7% utilization goal required by the regulation.

Although the revised regulation opens up new employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, Revised Section 503 gives self-identification a new meaning.  Federal contractors need individuals with disabilities to self-identify in order to fulfill the terms of their federal contract. Are more individuals with disabilities now self-identifying?

One year after the implementation of Revised Section 503, many federal contractors are finding that individuals with disabilities are still not self-identifying. Companies which know the percentage of individuals with disabilities in their workplace are finding that employees with disabilities are not self-identifying on the anonymous form provided to them by their employer.   Employers are wondering why their job applicants and employees with disabilities are not self-identifying.

The answer is obvious.  Laws and regulations are unable to erase years of prejudice and fear.  A prime example is the laws which ended slavery and the subsequent civil rights laws which were supposed to level the playing field for African Americans.  The lesson is that you can’t legislate societal attitudes.

As for individuals with disabilities, we are celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA and although there have been many positive changes, negative attitudes towards disability persist. Until we see marked changes in the way in which individuals with disabilities are viewed by society, even in the most inclusive workplaces there will still be fear and concern about self-identifying as an individual with a disability.

Although laws cannot change attitudes, the image of disability is slowly becoming more positive.  Employers are aware that that as the baby boomers retire they will be facing a talent shortage and will need to be open to a more diverse workforce in order to find the employees needed by their companies.

In addition, employers are embracing the concept of a diverse workforce and diversity and inclusion has become a professional specialization. Employers are choosing to hire people from diverse backgrounds including individuals with disabilities. They recognize that diversity benefits their company.

The Connecticut Business Leadership Network (CTBLN, www.ctbln.com), an affiliate of the United States Business Leadership Network, is a passionate coalition of employers committed to the hiring of individuals with disabilities.  The mission of CTBLN is to bring diversity full circle by including individuals with disabilities in the workplace.  CTBLN”s members include business leaders, recruiting and human resources professionals. CTBLN educates these professionals on best practices for hiring individuals with disabilities through educational meetings, professional development (including the trainings required by Section 503), peer support and connections with service providers who prepare individuals with disabilities for employment opportunities. These service providers are an important connection to qualified job candidates for CTBLN member employers.

Attitudes towards disability in the workplace are changing because of the efforts of employers committed to an inclusive workplace and organizations like CTBLN, disability advocates, educators and the hiring requirements for federal contractors.  These are sources of truly meaningful and lasting change. This change is coming from those directly involved in the employment process and will open up opportunities for individuals with disabilities. As more individuals with disabilities appear in the workplace attitudes regarding disability will change to reflect reality: individuals with disabilities are capable of great work and contribution to society. Hopefully, we will witness a time when the decision to disclose a disability is no longer influenced by fear and that individuals with disabilities can be proud of their accomplishments and their disability status.

About Sharon Denson, M.Ed, J.D. 

Sharon Denson is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Business Leadership Network, an affiliate of the United States Business Leadership Network. She has worked for over five years for the Connecticut Business Leadership Network, an organization of employers dedicated to bringing diversity full circle by including people with disabilities in the workplace.

She holds a Master of Education degree from the University of Illinois and a Juris Doctor degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law. Sharon is known for her work as a disability advocate and expert in employment related disability issues. As an expert on Section 503, VEVRAA and the ADA, she does trainings for companies which are required to comply with these regulations and laws. She is also known for her unique disability awareness training which helps managers and team members learn and adopt best practices for hiring individuals with disabilities.

Sharon holds appointments from the Governor of the State of Connecticut to the State Rehabilitations Council (federally mandated oversight council for the Department of Rehabilitation Services) and the State Independent Living Council. She was appointed by the State of Connecticut Commissioner of the Department of Social Services to serve as Co-Chair of the Connecticut Council of Persons with Disabilities.  She serves on the Board of the Americans with Disabilities Act Coalition of Connecticut (ADACC) and is a member of their Training Committee.  She also serves on the Board of Directors of Independence Unlimited.  Sharon served as Chair of the West Hartford Advisory Commission on Persons with Disabilities.

Her background includes extensive experience as a corporate trainer, sales person and sales manager for Lexis Nexis, Shepard’s, Gaylord Brothers and Thomson Reuters.

About Disability Solutions @ Ability Beyond 

Disability Solutions works directly with national and global businesses on improving strategy and implementation for sustainable, company led hiring and retention initiatives for jobseekers with disabilities. Disability Solutions is the corporate consulting practice of Ability Beyond, a non-profit organization based in Bethel, Connecticut and Mt. Kisco, New York,  with more than 60 years’ experience in providing innovative solutions to increase successful employment opportunities for jobseekers with disabilities. Ability Beyond believes that the work of Disability Solutions will have exponential impact on the employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities nationally.  To learn more about Ability Beyond, visit www.abilitybeyond.org.

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