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Disability at Work: The Forgotten Diversity

The number of disabled employees is drastically underestimated.

Key points

  • Up to 80 percent of disabilities are not apparent; mental health conditions are the most prevalent.
  • Inclusive work practices support the well-being of disabled employees, but such practices are lacking.
  • Employers widely underestimate the prevalence of disability; it's about 20 percent higher than most report.
Anastasimorozova/ Freepik
Source: Anastasimorozova/ Freepik

Disability in the workplace is a form of diversity—yet it is widely misunderstood and often excluded from diversity considerations. While most organizations have diversity programs, only 4 percent of them include disability in their diversity efforts. Disabled1 workers face higher unemployment rates, underemployment, job insecurity, and workplace discrimination.

"We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are," is a quote attributed to the Talmud and to the writer Anais Nin. If something is a barrier for others but not for us, we often do not see the barrier.

In the workplace, the barriers faced by disabled employees are frequently overlooked or outright denied. In fact, the very existence of disabled workers is overlooked.

Employers widely underestimate the prevalence of disability—while 25 percent of employees self-identify as having a disability or medical condition that limits a major life activity, most companies report that just 4 to 7 percent of their employees are people with disabilities. This perception, in part, is the reason for underinvestment in disability support. If pragmatic decision-makers do not understand the true number of people in the disability community, disability advocates have a hard time making an argument for developing support systems.

Most disabilities (possibly up to 80 percent) are non-apparent. Here are just a few from a much longer list: autoimmune disorders, developmental differences, long COVID, migraines, anxiety, depression, diabetes, PTSD, heart disease, IBS, epilepsy, learning differences, and differences in neurological functioning and sensory perception. Mental health conditions are the most prevalent types of disability in the U.S. The struggle of dealing with these conditions is often exacerbated by the dismissive mindset, "You don't look like you're struggling."

The State of Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

A 2023 report—Your Workforce Includes People with Disabilities. Does Your People Strategy?—discusses three troubling realities of the workplace:

  • Under-disclosure of disability due to fear of stigma or job insecurity.
  • A missed opportunity to engage a substantial portion of the workforce fully.
  • Decisions regarding workforce development and investment are founded on inaccurate data that greatly underestimate the prevalence of disability.

The study leverages Boston Consulting Group's BLISS Index (Bias-Free, Leadership, Inclusion, Safety, and Support) which provides a quantitative measure of employees' feelings of inclusion. Overall, people with disabilities scored three points lower on the BLISS Index (scored from 1 to 100) than those without a disability or health condition. And they are 1.5 times more likely to have experienced discrimination at work than those without a disability.

The data shows that organizations can effectively improve disability inclusion and, in the process, improve the workplace experience of all employees by implementing the following:

  • Employee-centric policies and programs, such as flexible work.
  • Mentorship, which improves overall happiness at work.
  • Accommodations.

Accommodations are adjustments to jobs, work environments, processes, or conditions that enable individuals with disabilities to perform their work effectively. They can include flexible schedules, modifications to physical workspaces, or adjustments in responsibilities. Most disability accommodations do not require any expenditure. Accommodations can make or break employee experience. When people with disabilities receive reasonable accommodations, BLISS Index outcomes improve significantly. When requests are denied, BLISS scores plummet, and the attrition risk increases considerably.

Providing accommodations has direct and indirect benefits to organizations and employees. These benefits include retaining qualified employees and significant cost savings associated with retention, increased diversity, enhanced morale, safer workplaces, and improved coworker interactions.

Despite the potential benefits, employees face challenges when requesting accommodations. The process can be stressful and ineffective, and discrimination from supervisors is not unusual. Even when accommodations are available, they can make an employee a target of bullying, especially in the case of non-apparent disabilities when accommodations are perceived as desirable or enviable.

Without creating more flexible cultures where all individuals are supported, differences are normalized and de-stigmatized, and anti-bullying mechanisms are integrated within organizational systems, it is unlikely that disabled individuals will receive fair and equal treatment in the workplace.

Toward Systemic Justice

Ensuring justice is not simple, however.

Developing effective mechanisms for disability inclusion is crucial from a human perspective, which calls for the full inclusion of all individuals. Nevertheless, many organizations rely on the business case, which considers the value of talent diversity and the return on investment. It is important, however, not to overplay the business case.

Research shows that the business case is a turn-off for underrepresented job candidates. It signals a commodifying view of employees from underrepresented groups and heightens their concerns that they would be stereotyped. The best case for diversity might be simply valuing humans without forcing the less privileged to keep justifying their existence to the more privileged. Or, in the case of disabled workers, proving their existence.

(1) This article uses identity-first language, preferred by many in the disabled community, unless the person-first language is used in the cited report and the data collection.

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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