John from accounting is curious to know why Mark takes pills three times a day. He doesn't know Mark suffers from a rare heart condition. Bill in the construction crew has to take a break twice a day to take an insulin shot, which sometimes frustrates other workers, because they think he is getting extra breaks in violation of union policies.
These are fictional situations, but millions of Americans suffer from hidden disabilities or health conditions that can affect their workplace routines. Hidden disabilities include epilepsy, bipolar disorder, arthritis, attention deficit disorder and lupus. Educating coworkers, supervisors and employers on this topic is challenging and can sometimes put workers in sticky situations.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that reasonable accommodation be provided, if necessary, for all people with disabilities, whether hidden or visible. Reasonable accommodations must be determined on a case-by-case basis and can range from making facilities accessible for wheelchairs to job restructuring or modifying equipment.
Unfortunately in today's workplace, if a disability is not observable, many people have difficulty understanding the need for accommodation, and some employees think coworkers are receiving favoritism.
“If a person requests an accommodation, the employer can work in partnership with the individual,” says Betsy Jaros, vice president of corporate development for Minnesota Diversified Industries, a company that promotes opportunities for workers with disabilities. “In some cases, it may be as simple as a special chair, or a stool for their feet, or maybe adaptive equipment on a phone to ensure the person can hear. Wherever there are performance issues, it's critical to begin a dialogue with the individual as quickly as possible. A person with a disability does not want their disability to excuse performance on the job — they are as concerned with excellence and productivity as their employer.”
Jaros offers these tips for employees and employers who may be working with a worker with disabilities:
- All parties need to keep the discussion performance-based. Never assume a disability in the workplace will cause substandard performance.
- Maintain “people-first" language and preferred disability terminology. People have illnesses, medical conditions and varying cognitive abilities. For example, say "person with bipolar disorder" versus "she is bipolar."
- When disclosure occurs, the supervisor — if not already familiar with the ADA — must find a resource.
Unfortunately, disability discrimination charges are increasing at both federal and state levels, and even though HR personnel are continually educated on the ADA, not all employers are in tune with laws and regulations.
Marshall Tanick, an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm Mansfield, Tanick and Cohen, PA, and an author of numerous articles related to disabilities in the workplace, says any discussion about a worker's disability should be brought up only with HR personnel and discussions should focus on potential and needed accommodations, not prognoses, therapies or current concerns.
“Once an employee is hired, the employee may want to subsequently bring up the hidden disability,” says Tanick. “An employee might want to explain the nature of the disability and what type of accommodations may need to be made, such as an occasional absence for appointments. However, the employee should not indicate, directly or indirectly, that the disability prevents them from doing the essential functions of the job, because, if it does, then they are not legally protected under ADA or any disability laws.”
However, some employees feel that talking about the disability with coworkers can be helpful, because it may lead to understanding and a willingness to work together to help accommodate them and make them as productive as possible.
“People develop relationships and feel the need to share their personal and daily issues with coworkers,” says Jaros. “Some people are very close with those they work with, and for some, being open about it helps them deal with it better.”
“The most common reason a person may want to disclose their disability is that it allows an individual to request or discuss accommodations,” says Jaros. “When this occurs, it is important the employer or coworker only request disability information related to the individual's ability to perform the job.”