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Disability Disclosure: Understanding the Hurdles, Facilitating the Discussions

As a society we have made tremendous progress since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) thirty years ago. And although this certainly includes tremendous progress in the workplace, individuals with disabilities continue to be both unemployed and underemployed at a much higher rate than those without disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20% of people with disabilities are employed, as compared to 65% without disabilities[[1]. Of those who are employed, over 30% work part time, double the rate of non-disabled workers. This differential represents a significant segment of the available labor market who are ready, willing, and able to contribute to the workforce across all employment sectors and jobs.

A key element to ensuring inclusive employment is making sure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to the workplace. Workers with disabilities often need adjustments to their workplace to perform their jobs successfully. “Accommodation” is the legal term for these adjustments, which could include, e.g., changes to the physical space, specific equipment, tools or technologies, changes in lighting or changes to work schedules and other processes or supports. Accommodating those differences enables them to meet the same performance standards as their peers. This article will use both “accommodation” and “adjustment” interchangeably. The legal standards for accommodation are not addressed in this article but can be found at the Job Accommodation Network ADA Library.

From the employer’s perspective, providing workplace accommodations is both a legal requirement and smart business. It gives access to an underutilized talent pool that is known to deliver once those barriers are taken out of their way[2]. The benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities include greater innovation, creativity, engagement, and retention, as well as the reputational benefits that come with making a commitment to this underrecognized segment of our communities[3].

So what’s getting in the way of workplace accessibility? In many instances, to gain meaningful access to employment through workplace accommodations, the employee needs to initiate a process that includes disclosing some level of information about their disability. This article is intended to help employers understand the barriers that prevent an employee from disclosing this information, as well as some practical tips to make that process more effective. 

The need for disclosure

The law is designed to require employers to provide accommodations to individuals with covered disabilities who have expressed their need for accommodation. But this duty is only owed to employees (and candidates), who have affirmatively communicated this need[4]. The practical requirement of the person seeking the accommodation is that they must disclose both that they need an adjustment to how they work, and enough information about their disability to show that their disability is related to the adjustment that they are seeking. 

This legal and practical step can be so daunting that it prevents individuals who need (and are entitled to) accommodations from making the request. This can in turn result in underperformance, job loss, and failure to be hired in the first place.

Challenges relating to disability disclosure can have other employment implications as well.  Separate and apart from securing necessary accommodations, employees may seek to disclose their disabilities for other equally important reasons. For some individuals, their disabilities are integral to their identity and/or highly ingrained in their daily lives. Withholding this information at work can feel isolating, taking its toll on job satisfaction and wellness. For others, this information is deeply private. They want to be sure that if they share it, the information will be treated with sensitivity and confidentiality.

What’s getting in the way

Disclosing a disability can feel insurmountable to some individuals. There are a variety of reasons why workers may choose not to disclose, even when it might be in their best interest to do so.    

  • Fear of discrimination. The disability community has long been stigmatized, especially regarding their capacity to work at the same level as their non-disabled peers. This harmful bias was the impetus for the Americans with Disabilities Act. And although many employers have made great progress towards inclusivity and engagement of workers with disabilities in the thirty years since the enactment of the ADA, workers remain wary. The stereotypes and biases that drove the enactment of the ADA are real and continue to exist. These workers likely have experienced these biases in many aspects of their lives, including education, friends, family, and community. These experiences are even more prevalent with certain mental disabilities that continue to have especially harmful stigmas associated with them. Some individuals with disabilities that are not apparent may also be reticent to share this information about themselves for fear of being “othered.” This sense of alienation may come from people who have no ill intention yet signal through very subtle actions that they view their peers with disabilities as intrinsically not equal. 
  • Unaware of right to accommodation. Some individuals with lifelong disabilities have extensive experience with self-advocacy. Others may be experiencing a disability for the first time or are new to the workforce and may not be aware of their rights. Some common misperceptions include:
  • Not knowing that a disability accommodation can be requested for the job application process
  • Believing that accommodation requests must be raised upon being hired or they lose their right to do so later
  • Believing that they are required to know the specific accommodation that they need before they can ask for assistance (Yes, it is helpful to have some options handy, but the law expects the employer to work with employees on figuring out accommodations when the employee is uncertain as to what will be effective.)
  • Uncertainty about the need for accommodation. This is especially the case when the worker is new to the workforce, new to that particular type of work, or recently disabled. They don’t understand the demands of the job or other workplace conditions that may hamper their ability to be successful. They may prefer to settle into the job and get a sense of what adjustments may be necessary before initiating a conversation with their employer.
  • Lack of clarity on how to ask for accommodation. Understanding who to go to about the need for an accommodation can be confusing, especially for employees who are apprehensive about approaching their managers. Asking for accommodation is even more difficult for job applicants, who may need assistance on a very short timeline and have little to no information about who to contact with a confidential request.
  • Preference for self-accommodation. Workers may believe that they can manage their accommodations on their own without the need to highlight their differences to their employer. This can certainly be true and may be an effective approach for some individuals. In other cases, an employee may believe that their self-accommodations are successful, while their manager has a very different view of the effect their self-accommodation has on their performance. Disclosing the disability can provide protection to the employee and give the employer another avenue to support them.
Tips for Employers

The good news is that there are many ways that employers can make the workplace more accessible to individuals with disabilities that ease the burdens and make the process of discussing their needs a positive and effective experience for both the individuals and the employers.

Celebrate an inclusive workplace that includes disabilities in the narrative. Employees with disabilities often avoid disclosure because they fear bias and are worried about their job security. Signal to employees and candidates that you are a workplace that is friendly and welcoming to individuals with disabilities. Make sure that diversity initiatives (hiring programs, affinity groups, workplace inclusion) explicitly include disabilities, and that workers with disabilities are represented in DEI committees. Communicate these programs, both internally to your workforce, and prominently on your website as well so that candidates can see it too. The Disability Equality Index is a useful tool for understanding best practices and benchmarking your organization’s efforts[5].

  • Explain how to seek accommodations. If employees don’t know who to go to for workplace adjustments, they may worry that they are asking the wrong person. Let employees know who they can talk to about their disabilities and needs for workplace adjustments. Approaching their manager may seem the easiest for some employees, but quite intimidating for others. Be clear that their manager is a good option, but not the only avenue. Communicate this regularly and include the contact information of relevant resources (e.g., human resource representatives or disability specialists). This communication also should include an explanation of how confidentiality is ensured.
  • Make it easy. Employers have the right to seek additional information before providing requested accommodations, but it shouldn’t be burdensome, complicated, or lengthy. Remember the employee’s perspective. They are asking that a barrier be removed so that they can perform their job. They are already putting themselves in a vulnerable position. This is the employer’s chance to make a positive and inclusive first impression. Does the process feel manageable and welcoming? Or does it feel needlessly bureaucratic?
  • Train managers. Educate managers about workplace disabilities and how to handle conversations where employees have disclosed a disability. Make sure that they understand that employees may be disclosing disability information for a variety of reasons. Teach them to clarify the purpose and avoid probing for more information than the employee is willing to disclose. Show appreciation for the disclosure, treat the information as confidential, and bring HR into the loop.
  • Make workplace adjustments the norm. In many instances, small adjustments to the workplace can make a big difference in improving workplace accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Audit your workplace for opportunities where adjustments can be made available automatically, making disclosure unnecessary. This could include:
  • Providing automatic access for all employees to tools that facilitate common needs for working differently, such as:
    • technology tools including headphones, captioning, voice to text technology;
    • alternate lighting, quiet workspaces;
    • and standing desks, and ergonomically sound workstations.
  • Limiting workplace odors, such as chemical cleaners and room fresheners.
  • Ensuring all physical spaces are fully accessible for workers who use wheelchairs or may have other mobility differences. Are ramps and rails in the right places? Are doorways, aisles and conference rooms wide enough? Are handles accessible and do doors open in a direction that is compatible with someone using a walker or wheelchair? Are chair lifts in working order? 
  • Provide transparency for job applicants. Many candidates do not understand that they have rights to accommodations during the interview process. And those who do are often concerned that raising this need will trigger explicit or implicit bias, or simply take too long to be helpful to them. Options for employers:
  • Good: Include a notice in application materials that invites candidates to seek an accommodation.
  • Better: Also include details for specifically who to contact about accommodations and let candidates know how that information will be handled. E.g., under what circumstances will it be shared with the hiring committee or the candidate’s future manager.
  • Best: Also, signal workplace inclusion for disabilities by following best practices in the hiring process for a wide variety of disabilities, access, social, and communication differences. Recognize disability diversity and inclusion in your company values and your recruiting materials. Benchmark through the Disability Equality Index.

As employers continue to embrace the imperative of creating a workplace that is truly inclusive for individuals with disabilities, an important starting point is a strong foundation that invites the critical discussions that allow every employee to perform at their very best. Recognizing the challenges and developing effective strategies will help organizations and employees achieve these important goals.


[1] Persons with a Disability:  Labor Force Characteristics Summary, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Economic News Release, February 23, 2023,

[2] 4 Reasons to Hire Persons with Disabilities, Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, February 15, 2022,

[3] Persons with Disabilities: Driving Innovation in the Workplace, ABA Commission on Disability Rights, Panel on Innovation in the Workplace (2017),

[4]  Facts About the Americans With Disabilities Act, E.E.O.C. Fact Sheet, September 9 2008,; Disability Disclosure and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Job Accommodation Network,

[5] Disability Equality Index,