Employee Disability Disclosure starts with Disability Inclusion. We explore Disability and what organizations need to consider to create an environment that makes employees feel comfortable to disclose their disabilities.
Do you know which of your employees or colleagues are living with a disability? Is your organisation a safe and welcoming environment for people with disabilities?
November 3 marks the beginning of the National Disability Rights Awareness Month which South Africa observes annually until 3 December. The 3rd of December is celebrated as International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and locally it is the National Disability Rights Awareness Day.
Disability occurs as a consequence of an impairment – physical, mental cognitive, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these. The observance of Disability Awareness Month is not just to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities in all aspects of life (social, economic, political, and cultural), but to also
- recognize the diversity of people living with disabilities and
- promote their rights and well-being in all spheres of society.
Exploring the disability landscape
Why is it so important? Disability inclusion is an essential condition to upholding human rights and promoting well-being. It is crucial to facilitate disability inclusion considering that the World Health Organisation estimates that 15% of the world’s population live with a disability.
In South Africa, the official national disability prevalence rate is 7.5%; however, most researchers and disability advocates in this space agree that South African disability data is incomplete – and disability is likely underreported. A more accurate figure is estimated to be between 11% and 17%.
- Disability is more prevalent among females compared to males (8.3% and 6.5% respectively).
- The prevalence of people living with disabilities increases with age
- People with disabilities experience difficulties accessing education and employment opportunities
- Households headed by people with disabilities experience less access to basic services
- Access to assistive devices and services differs across population groups and geography
Considering these facts, at least 5 million South Africans are living with a disability, and it is crucial that we recognize and promote the inclusion of this population.
Types of disability: Visible vs Invisible
Many of us tend to think of disabilities and picture the conditions we can see – we think wheelchairs and prosthetics; glasses and walking sticks; and other physical impairments that are immediately visible or identifiable.
These are visible disabilities, which mostly include the impairment of a physical feature. People living with visible disabilities may likely use an assistive device that acts as an indicator of that disability.
There are also invisible disabilities that often have no visible indicator. Invisible or hidden disability is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities and challenges that are primarily neurological in nature.
These may include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Chronic pain
- Learning disabilities
- Personality disorders
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Fear of Disclosure
Disclosing a disability can be a challenge for your employees. The stigmatization of people with disabilities is well documented and in addition to this, people with disabilities may likely have experienced past situations that resulted in embarrassment or intimidation, hence the fear to discuss this.
As a result, in the workplace, people living with invisible disabilities are constantly trying to figure out who they should disclose to and when. On one hand, if they do not disclose, misunderstandings are likely to take place; and on the other hand, if they do disclose - there is a very real possibility that others may think they are making it up or exaggerating in order to receive special accommodations.
Studies show that people with invisible disabilities are constantly fearful of being perceived this way; and as such disclosure of disabilities, particularly in the workplace, is low.
Last year’s Disability Awareness theme, “Not All Disabilities are visible” aimed at raising awareness of the fact that with hidden disabilities comes the challenge of disbelief. When individuals or organizations cannot see a disability there exists a danger of misunderstanding or malignment of the disability.
As a result, people living with invisible illnesses and disabilities are not likely to disclose out of fear that they may be perceived as faking or lying.
This is where focusing on inclusion comes in. Inclusion goes beyond the provision of equal access. Inclusion means acknowledging that differences and disabilities come with specific challenges and facilitating impactful access that enables people to overcome the challenges and barriers posed by their disabilities.
Awareness is the key to an inclusive workplace
Because invisible disabilities are rarely outwardly apparent, it is important to be sensitive to the reality and challenges faced by people living with this category of disabilities. While businesses are urged to employ people with disabilities, often, we remain blind to the employees already in our organisations who are living with a disability but are afraid to disclose this.
Is your organisation safe enough to allow an employee to disclose their disability?
Be open: We can begin by shelving our definition of ‘normal’ and understanding that what we perceive as normal is ultimately a socially constructed standard. Doing this allows you to become more open to the differences in the people around us, disability or not, and in particular, more open to be accepting of people across the broad spectrum of invisible disabilities.
Be Aware: Even when you empathize do not speak authoritatively about the condition of another. Instead, listen and learn to understand. Without understanding, you run the risk of responding in an inappropriate or offensive manner.
Be Inclusive: workplace sensitivity is about making sure that the organisational culture (and everyone in it) is inclusive and welcoming. Examples of sensitivity include
- Language – be aware of how diversity, and in particular – disability is spoken about in your organisation. Some language may be inherently harmful and exclusionary in nature
- Actions – like languages, actions are impactful. Respect diversity and acknowledge that actions contribute to the organisational culture
- Policies – are your policies sensitive to the health and wellness of your employees? Are you creating a supportive and empowering environment? If you nurture only one type of wellness you risk excluding some of your employees.
Providing reasonable accommodation for Invisible Disabilities
Many employers find the concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ intimidating. They immediately assume there is a hefty price-tag attached to the provision of reasonable accommodation, mostly because, as stated above, many of us default to thinking only of the physical/visible disabilities that may require some structural adjustments to the workplace.
- Evaluate the options healthcare available to your employees
- Ensure that mental health coverage is included in any company wellness package (seeing out-of-network providers can be costly)
- Promote free services that are part of the employee benefits package e.g. health workshops/coaching to reduce stress
- Provide targeted disability awareness training for your staff
- Organisation wide diversity and disability awareness training for all employees to raise awareness and equip staff with appropriate and supportive language to use with their colleagues
- Leadership training for everyone managing a person with a disability to understand how to support and nurture your employees’ well being
- If necessary, bring in external help to conduct a Reasonable Accommodation Audit of your organisation, policies, and practices to help you identify where the gaps are.
Benefits of disclosure
Diversity has, among other things, been credited with increasing employee well-being and productivity and ultimately, a company’s profitability. Getting your employees to disclose their disabilities can effectively contribute to the growth of your business in a multitude of ways from the retention of staff to the performance of the organization.
Some of the more apparent benefits include:
- Increased employee wellness has been shown to be directly linked to an increase in job satisfaction. Studies show that people who disclose their disabilities are twice as likely to feel regularly happy and content at work than those who have not.
- Enhanced job performance: As an employer, you can only facilitate a supportive and nurturing environment for employees you know. It goes without saying that Disability Disclosure will allow you to provide a reasonable accommodation that allows people with disabilities to perform at their highest level.
- Increased innovation and productivity: it can take a psychological and emotional toll to hide a significant part of one’s identity. When people feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work, their sense of wellbeing improves, it creates conditions for a more open culture that leads to more collaboration and innovation.
- Compliance targets: One of the most obvious benefits for employers is compliance. The Employment Equity Act and the Revised Codes of Good Practice have imposed compliance targets for the employment and skills development of people with disabilities. To be able to meet these targets, employers need to be able to accurately measure disabilities in the workplace, which – in turn – can only happen if people disclose their disabilities.
So how do you facilitate Disability Disclosure?
Make no mistake, disclosing a disability is a gradual process for an individual. It may start with ticking the ‘yes’ box on an anonymous survey, opening up to a friendly colleague, or disclosing to the manager during a high-pressure situation or medical event. Whatever the circumstances, most employees base their decision on the workplace culture and how they perceive other employees with differences and/or disabilities being treated.
There are some steps that an organisation can take to encourage employees’ disability disclosure:
- Trust – trust is the number one factor in encouraging any disclosure and creating an environment of trust where employees feel comfortable to share is imperative.
- Prioritize Inclusion – make diversity and inclusion a focus and communicate this to your employees, including diversity/disability awareness training for managers and co-workers
- Employee benefits – highlight and communicate employee benefits of disability disclosure
- Resource groups – Create and facilitate employee resource groups. Does your Employment Equity committee have a disability representative for example?
- Career growth – when people with disabilities see their colleagues with disabilities participate in mentoring and coaching programs, for example, getting promoted and being listened to when they offer feedback and contributions it signals to them that the organisation is serious about inclusion.
Transcend can help:
The bottom line is that employees are more likely to disclose their disabilities when they experience their workplace culture as inclusive. Your company cannot simply pay lip service to inclusion, but be demonstrably disability aware and inclusive. Transcend has worked in the disability space for over ten years providing
- Disability Consulting services to clients
- Disability Awareness training
- Disability learnerships
- Accredited disability training including work readiness training.
Contact us to speak to a consultant today if you would like
- Assistance to understand the challenges that people with disabilities encounter in the workplace,
- Learn how to maximize your disability spend and unlock the disability points on your BEE scorecard from one of our BEE consultants,
- If you would like to encourage your employees to disclose their disabilities,
- If you would like to learn more about our accredited skills development solutions for people with disabilities, OR
- If you would like to book a workshop for your employees during disability awareness month