Hiding Disabilities in the Workplace
Under the Canadian Human Rights Act (1977), as well as Provincial Human rights codes, an employer has a duty to accommodate employees with disabilities.
However, this regulatory requirement does not always mean that an inclusive and diverse work environment will be actively fostered. Stigma against persons with disabilities remains prevalent.
A recent BMO survey found that 48% of Canadians “believe a person is more likely to be hired or promoted if they hide their disability.” Given these findings, it is not surprising that 20.4% to 36.7% of the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD) respondents reported that their employer was unaware of their disability. This pattern of employees hiding disabilities may be due to a number of factors, including fear of:
a. An employee may fear that they will face negative treatment because of their disability. This is often linked to “ableism,” a belief that devalues people with disabilities and exposes them to stereotyping, stigma, and prejudice. Discrimination can take many forms, including imposing additional burdens, being screened out of hiring processes based on disability alone, or not having access to full benefits.
b. Harassment is a pattern of someone saying or doing something distressing to an employee with a disability. This could include slurs, name calling, ridiculing comments, and singling out an individual, among other actions.
The combination of discrimination and harassment may create a hostile environment for an employee with a disability, especially if these cases are wide-spread and repetitive. When these behaviours result in ableist policies or practices that are embedded into the administrative structure of an organization, this is a case of systemic discrimination. In these cases, employees with disabilities may fear reprisal from their organization should they disclose their disability.
Another one of the primary reasons that employees may choose to hide their disability is misconceptions their employers may have. Let’s debunk a few of these assumptions here:
- Hiring and accommodating employees with disabilities will be costly.
a. Employers who are new to employing persons with disabilities might be under the impression that job modifications, assuming increased liability, or purchasing equipment and technologies to accommodate these employees will be costly.
b. In actuality, the accommodations to retrofit an office space with accommodations are likely to be a one-time affordable cost, with long-term payoff in your organization’s ability to hire a broader pool of candidates. Additionally, Canada often provides tax incentives and funding options (from ESDC and CRA) to offset the cost of accommodations.
- Addressing an employee’s disabilities means that the employer needs to be an expert.
a. While it’s true that disabilities are often complex, take differing forms, and an employee may have multiple diagnoses, no employer is required to have full knowledge of how this impacts an employee’s life. Instead, there are established methods to ensure that all necessary accommodations can be met. For instance, clearly outlining the job requirements prior to posting a position, and being open to hearing the employee’s needs will allow both parties to get the information they need. Large employers often have developed policies on submission of disability or accommodation work plans, which allows employees to document their needs in-writing, as well as a way to measure progress towards accommodations. Processes such as these can ensure that the employer is receiving the required information, without the employee feeling pressure to disclose any non-relevant medical information.
- An employee’s disability will affect every aspect of their role.
a. In reality, an employee with a disability may only require minor accommodations in order to fulfill their professional role. While an employee in a wheelchair may need accessible conference rooms and printers, they will likely be able to read and file electronic documents or write reports at the same rate and in the same manner as their able-bodied colleagues. While an employee with vision impairment may need assistive technology for reading emails and forms, they may be able to take and receive phone calls without any accommodations. The extent that a person’s disability impacts their work varies with the individual. As with all groups, persons with disabilities are not a homogenous entity.
Currently, there are 645,000 Canadians with disabilities who have the potential to work in an inclusive labour market and are not working. Additionally, many Canadians with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. Through taking concrete steps to accommodate, and mitigate all cases of harassment and discrimination, these numbers will hopefully decrease over time.
Just like all employees, persons with disabilities have complex, intersecting identities, and while it is key that their disability be recognized and accommodated, they represent much more to a workplace than their disability alone. Remember that a diverse and inclusive workforce is stronger, and leads to innovation, productivity, and retention.
For additional examples of how an employer can accommodate employees with disabilities, check out the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recommendations here or the Government of Canada’s Duty to Accommodate Guidelines here.