By Roxy Merkand

Invisible disabilities include conditions that have no visible manifestation or have visible features not clearly connected to a disability (Santuzzi, Waltz, Finkelstein, & Rupp, 2014). Individuals with invisible disabilities choose how to disclose their disabilities in work-related domains (Ragins, 2008; Clair, Beatty, & MacLean, 2005). However, researchers have not investigated how disability disclosure strategies can vary as a function of a worker’s job stage or how these disclosure strategies are learned (Von Schrader, Malzer, Erickson, & Bruyere, 2011). It is critical to develop a nuanced understanding of disability disclosure because disclosure type could have implications for organizational outcomes such as receiving workplace accommodations, job performance and even maintaining employment status (Lindsay, Cagliostro, & Carafa, 2018; McGahey, Waghorn, Lloyd, Morrissey & Williams, 2016). As such, the primary goal of my research is to investigate the disclosure strategies used by employees with disabilities and to link them to workplace outcomes.

To investigate this topic of interest, our research team began with an online mixed-methods study, where undergraduate students with disabilities at the University of Waterloo completed a questionnaire on their disability disclosure experiences. Undergraduate students were chosen as our sample because they likely have variation in disclosure experiences, allowing us to capture a range of disability disclosure strategies. In addition, because the University of Waterloo has the largest co-operative education program in the world, we expected Waterloo students to have more work experience than students at other universities, providing them with increased opportunities to disclose their disabilities.

Our findings showed that job searchers typically disclosed disabilities in reference to fulfillments of job requirements. However, workplace disclosure centred around the student’s diagnosis. Disclosure strategies were reported to be learned through trial and error, as opposed to being taught through campus/community resources. The present findings highlight functional variation in disability disclosure, based on one’s job stage. From a developmental perspective, these findings can inform the creation of a guide for jobseekers/workers with disabilities on the topic of effective disability disclosure.

The study described above is the first of several studies to be conducted in a larger research agenda on disability disclosure. Our subsequent studies will investigate disability disclosure as a communication tool in workplace contexts. According to Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), individuals adapt their verbal and behavioural communication style to their current communication partner. Functionally, altering one’s communication style to a partner is done to establish psychological closeness or psychological distance – referred to as convergence or divergence, respectively (Giles & Ogay, 2007). Contextual factors such as differing power dynamics, level of trust and the evaluated outcomes of communicating information can also determine whether an individual will engage in convergence or divergence strategies when communicating in a given interaction. Applying CAT to disability disclosure, students may engage in various communication strategies when they disclose their disabilities to others and these strategies may differ based on the target of their disclosure and/or the stage of their job search. Additionally, students may develop and use divergence or convergence strategies over time, based on previous experiences with disability disclosure.

Our team is currently developing and validating a measure of Communication Accommodation. We plan to use this developed measure to investigate the relationship between Communication Accommodation and various workplace outcomes. This is a multi-year research project and as each study is completed, results will be disseminated at conferences in the fields of industrial/organizational psychology, career development and organizational behaviour. It is also of particular interest to our research group to compare disability disclosure between co-op and non-co-op students, in order to help both groups form disclosure-relevant skills as they enter work-integrated learning opportunities and the workforce.

Author Bio

Roxy Merkand is a doctoral Candidate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of Waterloo (UW) committed to disability advocacy in her research and work. Roxy studies disclosure of invisible disabilities during job search and at work and currently works at UW’s Centre for Career Action, advising students, including those with a disability, as they search for and apply to jobs.

References

Clair, J. A., Beatty, J. E., & MacLean, T. L. (2005). Out of sight but not out of mind: Managing invisible social identities in the workplace. Academy of Management Review, 30(1), 78-95.

Giles, H., & Ogay, T. (2007). Communication accommodation theory. In B. B. Whaley & W. Samter (Eds.), Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 293-310). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lindsay, S., Cagliostro, E., & Carafa, G. (2018). A systematic review of barriers and facilitators of disability disclosure and accommodations for youth in post-secondary education. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education65(5), 526-556.

McGahey, E., Waghorn, G., Lloyd, C., Morrissey, S., & Williams, P. L. (2016). Formal plan for self‐disclosure enhances supported employment outcomes among young people with severe mental illness. Early Intervention in Psychiatry10(2), 178-185.

Ragins, B. R. (2008). Disclosure disconnects: Antecedents and consequences of disclosing invisible stigmas across life domains. Academy of Management Review, 33(1), 194-215. 

Santuzzi, A. M., Waltz, P. R., Finkelstein, L. M., & Rupp, D. E. (2014). Invisible disabilities: Unique challenges for employees and organizations. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(2), 204-219.

Von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., Erickson, W., & Bruyere, S. (2011). Employment and Disability Institute: Emerging employment issues for people with disabilities. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/edicollect/1288/.