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Workers cast shadows as they stroll among the office towers in Sydney's Barangaroo business district
Reuters/Jason Reed
Workers with newly recognized disabilities are coming out of the shadows.
HIDDEN TALENT

Nearly a third of US white-collar workers have a disability, a new study finds

Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

From our Obsession

Power in Progress

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Companies that participate in tracking programs on disabilities have reported that, on average, 3.2% of their employees self-identify as having a disability. The actual percentage in your workplace is probably higher than that, though—maybe a lot higher.

According to the Center for Talent Innovation, 30% of white-collar workers in the US have a disability, based on a nationally representative survey of Americans who work full time and are between the ages of 21 and 65.

The wide gap between what has been officially reported and what the New York-based research firm’s groundbreaking study has revealed can be explained by a few factors. Most significantly, in 2016, the US government expanded its definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law stipulates that medical conditions, mental health disorders, and cognitive disorders are all disabilities if they interfere with a major life activity (including walking, eating, and working.) In other words, the just-released survey counted people with conditions like diabetes or cancer, and those with disorders like ADHD, as people with disabilities.

Another reason companies tend to grossly underestimate the prevalence of disabilities in any office is because most disabilities are invisible. Managers and colleagues can not know whether an employee is dealing with chronic migraines, or Crohn’s disease, or depression, unless that person comes forward. It’s estimated that two in five people have disclosed to their manager that they have an issue—without checking off a box on official HR forms. Only one in five are estimated to disclose their disability to HR.

In snapshot portraits of individuals who were interviewed for the study—which included responses from more than 3,000 people—the Center for Talent Innovation introduced white-collar workers who say they go to great pains to mask their disabilities. One government employee said that his bosses know something is up, but he “leaves it at that.” When he’s having a panic attack, he closes his door and hides under his desk to cope.

“We spoke with employees with invisible disabilities who often hide huge parts of their daily experiences, and with those with visible disabilities who frequently downplay these disabilities or play up other parts of their personalities in order to fit in at work,” the authors write in the report.

Sixty percent of people with disabilities reported “expending some energy to repress parts of their persona in the workplace,” compared to only 44% of employees without a disability. Among people of color with disabilities, 73% said they spent energy hiding their conditions, while 56% of white employees with disabilities said the same thing.

Millennials, not baby boomers, are most likely to have a disability

Millennials were more likely than baby boomers to have a disability, according to the survey, which was a surprise to the authors. Among those who reported a disability, 33% were millennials, while 29% were boomers. Gen X accounted for 27%.

Those born after 1982, aka millennials, may make up the larger piece of the pie because more colleges have taken steps to make classrooms and learning more accessible, allowing larger numbers of people with disabilities to enter the white-collar work world, the researchers suggest. They also point to a hockey-stick like increase in diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder conditions and other forms of neurodiversity, which are considered developmental disabilities. In 1970, 1 in 2,500 children were considered on the spectrum, but in 2017, that number is 1 in 68, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention. Millennials were also more likely to report that they were dealing with a mental health condition.

But despite their relatively large representation, the youngest employees with disabilities were also the group least likely to talk about their issue with a manager or ask for accommodation. Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president and director of publications at the Center for Talent Innovation, and one of the study authors, tells Quartz that, in interviews, millennials often explained that they felt their careers were too new for such risks.

Bringing “your whole self to work” feels impossible for many with disabilities

While the modern workforce likes to think of itself as progressive, and many HR departments talk up the value of bringing your whole self to work, the report paints a mixed picture of the attitudes people with disabilities face. Many people are still advised by friends or family to keep disabilities to themselves for fear they’ll be considered weak or unfit for particular roles, says Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president and director of publications at the Center for Talent Innovation. And many people may not even realize they have a disability, or recognize that what they are working with—or around, as the case may be—is actually classified as a disability by law.

We’re living in “an interesting moment in our culture,” Taylor Kennedy says. “The reality is, the definition has changed. And we all have to adjust to the expanded definition.”

The alternative—soldiering through a disability for fear of being perceived as less able—can have a paradoxical effect. Taylor Kennedy recalls one man, a veteran, she had encountered in a previous study for her firm. He had disclosed his history of a traumatic brain injury,  but didn’t let his manager know that he was also living with regular migraines. Instead, he tried to manage the triggers for them, an impossible quest given that his work space was brightly lit. “He wasn’t able to work at his best because he wasn’t able to create the conditions he needed,” says Taylor Kennedy.

Solutions

When companies are inclusive of people with disabilities, they have access to a wider, more diverse, talent pool, she says.

The full report recommends myriad steps that managers and companies can take to become more inclusive. They can signal to employees through corporate communication channels and community support groups that they’re invited to come forward and ask for what they need, for example, they can design the office according to the principles of universal design, and perhaps start by making the job application site itself fully accessible.

Many people with disabilities have learned how to navigate the world by working around hurdles, and persevering. But some might be even stronger performers if given certain accommodations, like a darker workspace or a shift in hours. To that end, companies might want to focus on hiring and training team leaders who demonstrate an inclusive attitude, since the team leader is typically the first person, or the only person, an employee will go to when they decide to report a disability or make a request for accommodation.

“That’s the most difficult change that we’re suggesting,” Taylor Kennedy says, “but we feel it’s the most important.”

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