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Talking to Your Employer About an Invisible Disability

Nearly 40 million Americans have a disability, and over 73% of those suffer from conditions that are not outwardly apparent, also known as ‘invisible’ disabilities.

Take me, for instance. I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a digestive condition I share with up to 20% of Americans, and a history of severe depression. Living with a disability affects my ability to lead a normal life, and for many Americans makes it extremely challenging to have a career.

The facts about working with a disability

Statistics show that people with disabilities apply to 60% more jobs than their counterparts before landing an opportunity, and only 40% of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25-54) were employed at all in 2018 — compared to 79% of all prime working-age adults.

Cases involving people with disabilities represented the second-highest number of all workplace discrimination cases filed with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) in 2018. That ranks higher than discrimination cases focused on race, age, ethnicity, and religion, and is second only to gender discrimination cases.
Once employed, more than 36% of people with disabilities encounter some form of discrimination. Cases involving people with disabilities represented the second-highest number of all workplace discrimination cases filed with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) in 2018. That ranks higher than discrimination cases focused on race, age, ethnicity, and religion, and is second only to gender discrimination cases.

According to an analysis by researchers at Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute, the most commonly cited conditions among all employment disability discrimination cases, were invisible ones.

People with invisible disabilities face a harrowing set of obstacles in the workplace. However difficult it is to broach the subject, here’s 1) why it’s important to discuss disabilities at work, 2) how you should approach your employer about your invisible disability, and 3) what to do if you feel disability discrimination in the workplace.

what is an invisible disability?

An invisible disability is one that isn’t immediately noticeable because it doesn’t cause a marked change in appearance. There are many conditions that qualify, including:

  • Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis
  • Digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia
  • Other conditions and diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Lyme disease

Because you can’t typically see the effects of these diseases, people often question the severity of such conditions — if not doubt they exist altogether. It’s this invisible nature that makes such cases so unique and challenging. People with invisible disabilities face judgment when using accessible parking spaces, sitting in reserved seats on public transportation, and making use of other accommodations they genuinely need and which are provided to them by law. It’s often assumed they are faking a disability when not using a wheelchair, walker, crutches, or another device to aid them.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to protect all people with disabilities, visible or invisible, from discrimination. According to the ADA, the term “disability” includes conditions that are episodic or in remission — such as cancer, HIV, IBD, and mental illness — to prevent discrimination against people who may appear fine, but still have a disability. However, a person’s condition must “substantially limit” their daily activities to be considered a disability.

The ADA applies to all employment practices, including recruitment, hiring, firing, and layoffs. In other words, under no circumstance can an employer discriminate against you for your disability at any stage of the employment process. You are protected under the ADA as long as you are qualified to perform the essential duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation (more on that below). Furthermore, an employer cannot refuse to hire you because you cannot perform duties that are considered nonessential.

disclosing your disability

The ADA applies to all employment practices, including recruitment, hiring, firing, and layoffs. In other words, under no circumstance can an employer discriminate against you for your disability at any stage of the employment process
Under the ADA, you are not legally required to disclose your disability to an employer, but you may do so voluntarily if you would like to request an accommodation or seek protection under the law.

Your employer may NOT ask you if you are disabled, or ask questions about the nature or severity of your disability. If you choose to disclose your disability, your employer may then legally ask if you can perform the essential duties of the job with (or without) reasonable accommodation. At that point, they may even ask you to describe or demonstrate how you will perform such duties.

Your employer may not, however, ask you to undergo a medical examination before they offer you a job. After you receive an offer, they may ask you to undergo a medical exam ONLY if all other employees are also required to undergo the same. And the employer cannot rescind an offer – or fire you – based on any information revealed from the exam.

reasonable accommodation

So, what is reasonable accommodation, and why do you need to request it?

According to the EEOC, “reasonable accommodation is any change or adjustment to a job or work environment that permits a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the job application process, to perform the essential functions of a job, or to enjoy benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by employees without disabilities.”

Regardless of whether your disability is visible or invisible, if it meets the ADA’s definition of “disability,” you’re qualified to request reasonable accommodations. These could include additional time off, days in which you work from home, or an office located close to necessary facilities (such as an entrance, exit, or bathroom).

According to the Job Accommodation Network, ‘there are no specific policies or procedures that employers must follow when trying to accommodate an employee with a disability’.  However, some employers are forward-thinking in meeting the needs of employees with disabilities, and they have successful policies and procedures to handle such requests consistently. You can find these organizations through employment sites like DisabilityJobs.net, whose entire purpose is to highlight current job opportunities from disability-friendly employers. 

the benefits of reasonable accommodation

Limitations faced by people with disabilities may be physical or mental, but both affect our performance at work. If you can’t get around the office, it’s difficult to perform essential job functions. Likewise, it’s difficult to concentrate on work when you’re constantly worrying about being able to complete a task made challenging by your disability.

Reasonable accommodations are designed to help you better manage your disability during the workday, thus allowing you to excel in your job. As the National Multiple Sclerosis Society writes, “everyone wins when employees maintain and enhance their productivity.”

how to disclose a disability to your employer

There’s an important caveat to the benefits of reasonable accommodations: if you do not request them, your employer is not required to provide them under the ADA. But they are required to provide accommodations to anyone with a disability who does make such a request, if the disability limits your ability to work effectively, and if the request doesn’t cause undue hardship to the employer.

Who do you tell exactly? 

1) Your immediate supervisor or manager if they will need to provide or approve the accommodation.

2) The EEO/Affirmative Action officer or Human Resources staff, if no immediate accommodation is required, but you would like the protection of the ADA 

3) The Employee Assistance Program staff if you are having difficulties in the workplace and need help deciding how, how much, and to whom to disclose

The National Institute on Disability recommends that you disclose your disability before serious issues may arise on the job. Employers are most likely to be responsive if you disclose in good faith, with the best interest of the organization in mind, and not as a last-ditch effort to keep your job if you showed poor performance while hiding your disability.

Below, we detail our best tips for a positive conversation about reasonable accommodations to help you formulate a plan: 

  • Schedule a face-to-face meeting. The best way to communicate your needs to your employer is to talk with them in person. You can answer questions and create a positive dialogue surrounding your disability.
  • Have a formal request in writing that you bring to the meeting. You may tell your employer as much or as little as you want about your disability, so decide how much detail you want to provide about the nature of your condition. At the very least, outline what accommodations you need and why they are necessary based on your condition and limitations. If you’re not sure what accommodations you need, the Job Accommodation Network’s search tool can help. 
  • If it brings you peace of mind, you may find it helpful to prepare a script to read from in your meeting. Boston University provides a useful script for people with a psychiatric disability, but it works just as well for any other condition. The link also offers additional tips on disclosing your disability to your employer. 
  • Come prepared with a letter from your healthcare provider. Your employer cannot ask what your disability is, but they can ask for a letter from a medical provider verifying that you have a disability that requires accommodations. Have this letter available in case it helps with the communication process.
  • Outline the facts and focus on how these accommodations will help your performance — and thereby improve the organization. 
  • Follow up your in-person meeting with an email that documents your written request and thanks your employer for help with providing reasonable accommodation. 

filing a discrimination complaint

Unfortunately, despite the legal protections in place, the reality is that employees with disabilities still face discrimination. If your employer questions your invisible disability or denies reasonable accommodations (that will not place an undue burden on them), you must decide whether or not to file a complaint.

Under the ADA, you have a right to be treated fairly, regardless of the nature of your disability or the accommodations you request. Visit the United States Department of Justice website for guidance as to where and how to file a complaint and seek legal advice if you feel your employer has infringed on your rights.

NOTE: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice concerning their particular circumstances.

Haley Fritz

Haley Fritz is the Founder & CEO of Millennial Pink Media, LLC, and the former Digital Content & Social Media Manager for Organic Spa Media, Ltd. As a wellness and lifestyle blogger, she has worked with global brands such as Reebok, Warby Parker, Go Macro, Fab Fit Fun and care/of. Haley is passionate about community service, and currently volunteers with FrontLine Services's Camp Bridges for children who have suffered from a traumatic death in their families.

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