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Disclosing Disability in the Workplace After the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we cheer ourselves by thinking of future socializing in-person. We also think about returning to work or activities we love. These hopes help us through the challenges of physical distancing. Moreover, these challenges show us that we can be more flexible or more creative than we thought we could. For instance, work during the pandemic has taken new forms and new strategies for success. Many of these strategies are also practices that help employers accommodate workers with disabilities. For instance, workers needing time off or other support during the pandemic may need to disclose personal information to their employers. In the same way, workers who need accommodations because of disability begin the process by disclosing their disabilities to their employers. Therefore, employers may be better able to support workers disclosing disability in the workplace after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disclosing Disability in the Workplace After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Some workers may need leaves of absence, or other accommodations, for COVID-related reasons. For instance, workers may:

  • Test positive for COVID-19
  • Need to care for loved ones who test positive
  • Exchange shifts, to care for children or other family members
  • Take frequent breaks to help children with online learning

In all these situations, workers must disclose personal information to their employer.

Similarly, if a worker requires disability-related accommodations to perform parts of their jobs, they must disclose this need to their employers. Workers may disclose their need for accommodations:

  • Before or during an interview
  • When they are hired
  • If they gain a disability while employed

In addition, some workers may disclose due to a change in their disability or their work responsibilities.

Confidentiality of Personal Information

Whether workers disclose COVID-related or disability information, the details they disclose should be confidential. In both cases, workers would likely disclose to colleagues in certain positions, such as:

  • Their supervisors or managers
  • Human resources

Moreover, workers may also disclose to others, such as trusted colleagues in their departments. Furthermore, other colleagues responsible for implementing the changes or accommodations workers require may also need to know. However, the information workers disclose is confidential. Colleagues whom a worker discloses to cannot reveal the worker’s personal information to others without the worker’s permission.

Confidentiality allows workers to disclose safely. When workers disclose personal information, they may dread stigma. For instance, workers of Asian descent who contract COVID-19 may fear discrimination. Similarly, workers caring for children full-time may be concerned that some colleagues will view them as less productive than workers without these responsibilities. Likewise, workers may also fear stigma when they disclose disability. They may fear discrimination from colleagues who believe harmful myths about workers with disabilities. In all these cases, confidential disclosure maintains workers’ privacy while providing workers the support they need.

Duty to Accommodate

When workers disclose their need for COVID-related accommodations, employers must support the workers. For example, when workers take COVID-related leaves of absence, their jobs should be protected until their returns. Similarly, when workers request disability-related accommodations, employers must meet the workers’ needs. For example, employers must develop individual accommodation plans that will allow the workers to perform their jobs.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, employers will gain experience responding to workers disclosing their need for accommodation. Employers should respond by meeting the needs of workers trying to balance their work with new demands on their personal lives. Finally, workers should keep disclosed information confidential and reveal it only on a need-to-know basis. Employers gaining more experience with these best practices may be better able to provide the same support to workers disclosing disability in the workplace after the COVID-19 pandemic.