Individuals with invisible disabilities face a dilemma when applying for work: Do I disclose my disability to the potential employer and, if so, how? This dilemma occurs because disabled applicants face potential biases that hinder perceptions of their employability: Although hiring managers might feel sorry for or pity these applicants they may not want to hire them because of concerns about incompetence or dependence on others. These biases can occur even if the applicant is qualified for the job. Effective disclosure of one’s disability can be helpful in overcoming negative stereotypes, but it is unclear what effective disclosure looks like. In this study, we examine how and why different disclosure tactics influence hiring managers’ likelihood of hiring job applicants with disabilities.

What are different disclosure tactics?

Disability disclosure can challenge or distance from negative stereotypes. Two disclosure tactics have been reportedly adopted by individuals with disabilities in job interviews. One tactic challenges negative stereotypes by framing the disability as though it is a source of strength (e.g., “my hearing impairment has helped me learn to overcome obstacles), while a second tactic distances the applicant from the disability and highlights alternative strengths (e.g., “I’m not like other people with hearing impairments, I can work well independently”). The first tactic asks hiring managers to view the disability in a positive light while the second tactic asks hiring managers to pay less attention to the disability.

How do disclosure tactics influence hiring intentions?

The answer is that it depends on characteristics of the disability. The psychological literature on stigma finds that individuals with disabilities seen as their own fault (e.g., hearing impairment from listening to loud music) are perceived as having more negative and stable character flaws—such as reckless or lazy—than individuals with disabilities not seen as their own fault (e.g., hearing impairment from an illness). When the disability is seen as the applicant’s own fault, effective disclosure needs to counteract misperceptions of the character flaw; the burden is not the same when the disability is not seen as the applicant’s fault.

Across two experiments, we find that when the disability is NOT seen as the applicant’s fault, then both disclosure tactics — challenging misconceptions and distancing from the disability — increase hiring intentions by decreasing hiring managers’ pity toward an applicant with a hearing impairment. When the hearing impairment was seen as the applicant’s fault, distancing from the disability actually increased hiring managers’ pity of the applicant and decreased their hiring intentions. This likely occurs because, unlike challenging, distancing from the disability heightens hiring managers’ concerns that the applicant will still experience trouble with whatever personal choice caused the disability.

How should job applicants disclose their disability? Applicants might avoid distancing from the disability when their disability might be seen as their own fault, and instead challenge negative stereotypes directly by embracing positive aspects of having the disability. This reduces hiring managers’ concerns that the disability will interfere with work.

However, managing bias during the selection process is not the responsibility of the applicant. Hiring managers should be held accountable to basing selection decisions on job-relevant criteria and not stereotypes of the applicant. Organizations can hold managers accountable by adopting structured interview evaluations and requesting that they justify evaluations.

Individuals with visible and invisible disabilities are under-employed in many organisations and thus represent a large untapped labor pool and source of competitive advantage. Under-employment exists partly because of biases and stereotypes during the selection process that are a barrier to disability employment. Through effective disability disclosure, disabled job applicants can work to overcome such stereotypes. Organisations also need to pay attention to the standardisation and accountability of their selection practices so that managing disability stereotypes does not fall on the shoulders of applicants with disabilities.



Brent J. Lyons is an assistant professor of organization studies in the Schulich School of Business at York University. His research interests pertain to stigma—and strategies toward overcoming stigma—in organizations.



Sabrina D. Volpone is an assistant professor of management in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research interests pertain to stigma and diversity in organizations.



Jennifer L. Wessel is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland. Her research interests pertain to stigma, identity management, and authenticity in the workplace.



Natalya Alonso is a Ph.D. student in the organizational behavior and human resources division of the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia. Her research interests pertain to gender and diversity in the workplace, and identity management.