In an article to be published in an upcoming Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, authors Santuzzi, Waltz, Rupp, and Finkelstein focus on difficulties faced by employees with invisible disabilities in the workplace. The article, titled Invisible Disabilities: Unique Challenges for Employees and Organizations, discusses organizational policy in the context of the ADA/ADAAA’s legislative framework. While the article does not mention Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Federal contractor community will find many of the issues the authors discuss relevant as they are evaluating organizational policy to comply with the new regulations.

Employees with disabilities face several potential challenges in the workplace. Some challenges are not unique to invisible disabilities (e.g., difficulty of the choice to accept the disability label, difficulty of choosing between the stigma of obtaining accommodation and the stigma of poor performance caused by the disability). Other potential challenges presented are clearly unique to individuals with invisible disabilities (e.g., perceptions of faking to obtain preferential treatment). Additionally, the article mentions the variable cultural stigma associated with certain invisible disabilities, especially those perceived to be within the control of the individual. In the case of cultural stigma, the article points out that this stigma may well be outside of the control of the organization to change. In these cases, the choice to disclose the disability in order to perform the job better must be thoroughly weighed against the social ramifications.

The article continues by exploring some of the unintended consequences of legislation. One potential consequence is that the legislation itself draws additional attention to these workers and can increase the stigmas associated with them, especially if co-workers perceive the legislative protections as coercive or creating unfair advantages (e.g., when an individual with an invisible disability receives an accommodation and then outperforms others on a test). The article encourages additional research into understanding the complexities involved in disclosing disabilities at work. Further, training and educating both supervisors and employees on the varied nature of disabilities (i.e., just because it isn’t obvious, doesn’t mean it isn’t there and just because you haven’t heard of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real) is recommended. The article also recommends that the ADA be amended to provide more flexibility in the disclosure process and the method of accommodation.

It will be interesting to see what effects the new Section 503 regulations will have on the stigma associated with disability status. Will employees and frequent Federal contractor applicants be desensitized by continuous solicitation of disability status? Does the increased effort to identify disability status increase social awareness of the disabilities and reduce stigmas? If all applicants are being asked pre- and post-offer to self-identify, and all employees are being asked about disability status (either with the full form or a reminder that updates are allowed at any time), how long will it take before this becomes as routine as taking your shoes off to go through airport security? Stay tuned.

by Kristen Pryor, M.S., HR Analyst and Dave Sharrer, M.S., Associate Consultant, DCI Consulting Group

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