Older workers with a disability face a double whammy: They're dealing with the stigma not only of disability but also of age. If they ask for accommodations on the job, they fear attention will be drawn to their age as well.
The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of workers to ask for accommodations at work to help them manage more easily. But research out of Oregon State University has found that older workers are less likely to ask for help, because they worry they'll be perceived as old instead, and that their disability is a result of their age.
Other research has shown that people with disabilities refrain from requesting accommodations if they think coworkers would find the request "normatively inappropriate" -- meaning not in keeping with the office culture. For instance, an office environment like "The Big Short" or "The Social Network" is perceived as being much less likely to understand and tolerate a disability than would a nonprofit that prides itself on a more inclusive culture.
Research by David C. Baldridge and Michele L. Swift of Oregon State University's College of Business, published in the journal Human Resources Management, studied the effect of age on such requests. Workers' fear of seeming old, they found, may trump their fear of seeming to have a disability. For study purposes they focussed on a single disability, hearing loss. Their findings were based on an email survey of 242 workers ages 18 to 69, all of whom had developed hearing loss before age 18. Most had moderate to severe hearing loss.
Age itself has a negative stereotype in many workplaces, including the perception of "lower productivity, resistance to change, reduced ability to learn, and greater cost," the authors wrote. "These stereotypes are often associated with fewer promotions, less training, lower performance ratings, and lower retention."
But add disability to age and the stereotypes multiply. The older the person with a disability, the more likely they are to fear that others will attribute the request not to the disability, but to their age.
"Simply put," the authors wrote, "people with disabilities appear to face a straightforward yet troubling question, 'If I ask for a needed accommodation, will I be better or worse off?'"
In their discussion, the researchers advised managers and human resources personnel to realize that while many older employees may be eligible for and would benefit from disability accommodation, "these employees might also be particularly reluctant to make requests," especially if they work in for-profit organizations or if the organization appears not to have others with disabilities.
As we know, people are working longer and longer. And as the workforce ages, disability increases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 26 percent of those ages 65 to 74 are in the workforce, and the majority are full-time workers. That percentage is expected to increase as the baby boomers age.
It's in a company's interest to have employees working at full capacity. If people are reluctant to ask for accommodations for a disability, their output and effectiveness are likely to suffer.
Please share your workplace experiences in the comments section. Do you have a disability? Have you asked for accommodations? If not, why not.
For more information about David Baldridge's studies of disability and the workplace, email him at David.Baldridge@bus.oregonstate.edu.
For suggestions on workplace accommodations for hearing loss see HLAA's Employment Toolkit.
A version of this post first appeared on AARP Health on June 3, 2016
Katherine Bouton is the author of Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends ... and Hearing Aids, and a memoir, Shouting Won't Help: Why I -- and 5o Million Other Americans -- Can't Hear You. Both available on Amazon.com.