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Some workers in DeKalb County struggle with unseen disabilities

DeKALB – DeKalb resident Kristin Maldonado finds comfort in knowing her manager at Michaels in DeKalb struggles with the same autoimmune disorder as she does.

Maldonado was diagnosed with Hashimoto thyroiditis when she was 12 years old. Now 29, the disorder that attacks her thyroid has affected her energy levels. She regularly has to monitor her thyroid-stimulating hormone levels with blood tests, is prone to depression and has plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the foot.

Her store manager at Michaels, Shannon Carpenter, also has Hashimoto thyroiditis.

"She completely understands," Maldonado said. "Some other people don't understand and think it's normal to be tired, but when you're tired all the time and can't do normal activities because your feet hurt, all I want to do is sleep all day."

Not every employee has the same luxury of confiding in their bosses about their disabilities. An article recently published in the journal, Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, found many employees struggle with disclosing their invisible disabilities, which are conditions not immediately noticeable. The article states disclosing an invisible disability can affect the employee's chances of getting a promotion as well as their social relationships and the overall health of the employee.

Northern Illinois University psychology professor Alecia Santuzzi was the lead author in the article. Santuzzi worked with Purdue University psychology professor Deborah Rupp to raise attention to the issue and to point out how current legislation might not be sensitive to those with invisible disabilities.

"Research suggests concealing stigmatizing information does weigh down on cognitive resources," Santuzzi said. "Mental energy that one could be devoting to being a better worker is somewhat distracted or challenged because part of their attention is on managing that information and making sure there aren't any leaks."

While the article does not call on specific legislation to change, it does cite the challenges of some already in place. An amendment of the Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to provide accommodations for the disabled, which could force those suffering from invisible disabilities to talk to their employers about how their disability affects work performance.

Another law enacted in March requires federal contractors to ask potential employees whether they have a disability before they are hired for the job. Under this law, job seekers are asked to voluntarily fill out a form asking whether or not they have a disability. They can choose, "I do not wish to answer" in the form, said Nancy Hammer, senior government affairs policy counsel for the Society For Human Resource Management.

"HR as a profession is very focused and aware of non-discrimination laws," Hammer said. "On the other hand, we understand why an individual who has a disability, especially if you can't see it, may not want to disclose that unless they need to for some reason."

Disclosure was difficult for Treveda Redmond, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb. Redmond missed the majority of the 2013-14 school year after being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.

She made the aggressive decision of having a double mastectomy in December, despite having no family history of breast cancer. She received breast implants June 17 to bring back her confidence.

Redmond said it was hard to tell school Principal Tim Vincent about her struggles because he is a man. It took her about two weeks for her to tell Vincent of her diagnosis.

"He was as supportive as he could be," she said.

For Maldonado, she talks to her boss regularly about Hashimoto thyroiditis, their shared autoimmune disorder. Carpenter even gave Maldonado health tips like eating a gluten-free diet because it has helped Carpenter control her own autoimmune disorders, Carpenter said.

In addition to having Hashimoto thyroiditis, Carpenter also has celiac disease, which makes her intolerant to gluten. By cutting out gluten for her celiac disease, she has been successful in putting her Hashimoto thyroiditis into remission and is now focused on educating others about controlling their own disorders.

"It's not consoling. It's a shared camaraderie," Carpenter said. "Being able to pull each other up and say, 'Yes, today's a bad day, but tomorrow's going to be a better one.'"

Prevalence of disabilities

Estimates from the American Community Survey and Survey of Income and Program Participation show an average of 13.4 percent of adults ages 21 to 64 have a disability.

An estimated 6.8 percent of the American workforce reported having a disability in 2010.

These estimates may be lower because of people's reluctance to report disabilities.

Source: Invisible Disabilities: Unique Challenges for Employees and Organizations

Examples of invisible disabilities

• Cancer

• Depression

• Anxiety

• Autism

• Diabetes

• Epilepsy

• Autoimmune disorders

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Voice your opinion

Would you hesitate to tell your employer about an invisible disability? Vote online at

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