Imagine this scenario…you’ve found your dream job, you are more than qualified to fill the position, you meticulously fill in each required field on the online application and then you reach the last section. Here, you are asked to check the box that describes your disability status. What do you do? To some not much thought is expended on this question, you have no disability to report. But to others, this question is a source of intense anxiety.
According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, 30% of white-collar college-educated professionals have a disability. Of all employees that fit into this group, 62% have one that is invisible; of those, only 3.2% reported disclosing their disability to their employers. Yes, you read that right, only 3% self-identify! As a sufferer of an invisible disability (we’ll dive into this in a minute), I fall in the 3% group and choose to not self-identify. I can attest to the real fear that comes with disclosing a chronic condition. Fear of teasing, harassment, change in relationships, and the possibility of being viewed as incapable or unpromotable is just a sample of the reasons why I choose to keep this information close to the hip. Contrary to a visible disability, typically those that present themselves in a physical form, a hidden or invisible disability is one that at the surface may not be immediately noticeable. Some examples include Arthritis, Cancer, Chronic Pain, Depression, Diabetes, Heart Conditions, Lupus, Post-traumatic stress disorder, and sleep disorders.
Jumping back into our application scenario, why then do companies ask this question? Is it for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) purposes? Is it required, and if so, what does the company gain from gathering this information? While there are many reasons for the collection of this information, I am going to focus on a few main points. Collecting and reporting this data is mandatory if the company receives federal funding under the 504 act of 1973. Section 504 forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services, including employment opportunities. But what if the company doesn’t fall under the 504 statutes; why would a private firm be interested in this data? In the past, Employers gathered this information with the stated emphasis to provide support to people with disabilities primarily through benefits and accommodations. However, what we are seeing today is the emphasis has shifted from purely accommodation reasons to supporting independence and promoting involvement in all aspects of society. So, if Corporate America is telling us that diversity and inclusion are the cornerstones of innovation and diversity in abilities falls in this arena why then, do we as sufferers of a visible or invisible disability, consciously choose to not self-identify?
While I can’t speak for the roughly 97% of sufferers of an invisible disability that choose not to self-report to their employers, my experience as a woman in this group has left me fearful of retaliation and unknown repercussions, couple these fears with the obstacles all women face with competing for positions in the workforce you can see how one could view the cards as being stacked against them.
However, this doesn’t have to be the case. How can we incentivize organizations to create a safe environment, free of retaliation, for potential and current employees to self-report their disability status?
Build trust through your brand. This goes beyond merely stating you are an EEO employer, highlight your disability diversity through your leadership. If those in leadership positions are open about their own disabilities in the workplace, you can create a culture of trust and transparency throughout the organization in which current and future employees will be more likely to be transparent about their needs.
Be open in your use of this data. Trust is earned, especially in the employee/employer relationship. Be upfront about why you gather the data in the application process. If you are striving towards DEI percentages share your current diversity statistics and how the inclusion of all has benefited the organization.
Communicate internally the resources available to your employees. Create a safe space for open dialogue with HR resources and allow opportunities for self-governance via groups.
And finally do what you say you are going to do; provide the promised accommodation, create the avenue for discourse, and tap into this pool of talent. Because if you don’t your competitors will.
As with all marginalized groups, those employees with disabilities bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, don’t discount the contributions that can be made from this truly diverse group of individuals by unintentionally creating a culture of bias.
Megan Boden is the COO for BluSky Consulting, LLC; an MBE certified technology consulting firm focused on guiding private organizations and governments in their digital transformations specifically in the analytical, IoT, and smart venue spaces. Currently, Megan is focused on designing and implementing business operations, establishing policies that promote the firm’s culture and vision, and overseeing the strategic operations of the firm.