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Education and Data Needed on Hidden Disabilities

Despite its high profile as an employer of choice among people with disabilities, Sears was unable to provide many examples of employees with hidden cognitive or mental disabilities, such as bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, anxiety disorders (phobias), or mental retardation.

"Cognitive disabilities are difficult issues for most people," says Harry Geller, Sears Workforce Diversity Regional Manager. "We don't ask people to identify specific disabilities. We give them an opportunity to ask for accommodations that will help them perform their jobs. More often than not, associates who have self-identified cognitive or mental disabilities have not gone on the record with their stories."

Issues of privacy and confidentiality collide with the company's culture and its desire to intervene and provide accommodations for these types of disabilities.

"Our corporate culture of inclusiveness and access to assistance provides an open door to our associates with hidden disabilities," Geller notes, "but once the door is open, it's the associate's decision to walk through it."

Workforce Diversity Manager Isaac Hawkins related an anonymous case history of a Sears associate with epilepsy. He says a store manager called the Workforce Diversity Department to inquire about accommodations for an epileptic store cashier who had injured herself on the job during a seizure.

In this case, Sears decided to pay for a physical examination, and upon receiving assurance from the examining physician of the associate's fitness for continued employment in her current position, implemented a series of accommodations, including: (a) stress management education because most of her seizures are stress induced; (b) more rest breaks during her work shift to further reduce on-the-job stress; and (c) a signaling device that acts as a reverse pager, provided by Sears at no cost to the employee, enabling her to signal for help at the onset of a seizure and ensuring that she will receive prompt attention and treatment.

One demonstrable way in which Sears provides assistance to associates with hidden disabilities is through the company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP), established in 1992. This program provides assessment and referral services for associates who need help in dealing with personal problems that could adversely affect their health or job performance, such as stress, depression, or substance-abuse problems.

The program is confidential, operated and administered by an independent organization under contract with Sears. Sears pays the entire cost of the program's services for employees and their dependents. Costs for treatment required beyond the scope of the program are the employee's responsibility. During the first year of the EAP, the cost totaled $1.5 milli on, including crisis intervention, phone consultation, management training, and printed materials. Of 180,000 eligible Sears employees, approximately 5 percent (9,000 employees) used the program.

Under the program, employees and covered dependents receive a maximum of three sessions related to a given problem, as determined by the professional counseling staff assigned to the program. Use of the EAP is voluntary and does not jeopardize an employee's status or advancement opportunities. Program participant's are assured complete confidentiality to the fullest extent provided by law.

The EAP demonstrates Sears' commitment to helping its associates with a variety of hidden disabilities deal with those problems confidentially and maintain a productive career and a stable personal life.

Recognizing and helping employees with hidden disabilities is an ongoing issue, not only for Sears, but for all American employers. Communication and education efforts spurred by the ADA may help companies and employees resolve issues related to hidden disabilities through trust, partnership, innovation, and creativity, and in doing so may help overcome the myths and attitudes of paternalism.

The experiences found at Sears build on the author's earlier research, a study of 1,500 adults with mental disabilities conducted from 1990 to 1993. 4 That project's key findings included the following:

The findings provide promising leads for further study of job attainment and retention trends for people with and without mental disabilities during the implementation of the ADA.