Disclosing A Disability to an Employer

WHY to disclose

Every job seeker with a disability is faced with the same decision: “Should I or shouldn't I disclose information about my disability?” Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to disclose is entirely personal. It is a decision to make only after weighing the personal advantages and disadvantages of disclosure. 

If you have a disability, you must consider the supports and services that you may need to be successful in the job of your choice. Are these supports and services available to you if you require an accommodation? Remember that accommodations in the workplace are only provided when a worker discloses his or her disability and requests job accommodations. Employers and co-workers are not required to provide accommodations to workers who have chosen not to disclose their disabilities.

The process of learning how to disclose your disability-related needs effectively and to develop an accommodation plan is extremely valuable. Effective disclosure skills require that you share information regarding your disability-related needs and that you provide creative, practical suggestions for job accommodations. Open communication with your employer, work mentor, and co-workers can help to evaluate the effectiveness of your accommodations and make changes when efforts are not working.

Some job seekers choose not to disclose their disabilities because they believe that they can manage their careers in the same way as any other job seekers, or because they have become skilled at developing compensatory strategies and have the ability to self-accommodate without assistance. Others decide not to disclose at work because they fear being treated differently or being denied the same opportunities as job seekers without disabilities.

On the other hand, many job seekers choose to disclose disability-specific information for a variety of important reasons and to a variety of different people (employer, work mentor, co-workers). The following list includes some (but definitely not all) of the reasons you might choose to disclose your disability:

  • obtain information to assist you in developing a career plan that addresses possible barriers and accommodations;
  • identify disability-specific employment services and support networks;
  • discuss employment requirements with recruiters or other professionals;
  • discuss disability issues with prospective employers to determine whether the requirements of the position can be met, with or without reasonable accommodation;
  • investigate the supports available at the workplace;
  • develop mentoring and peer support structures with employees and employers with disabilities.

Remember that it is not essential to divulge specific personal information about your disability. Your disability is only important if it affects (or can potentially affect) your ability to perform the essential functions of a job. What is most important and helpful is to provide information about how your disability affects your ability to perform the essential functions of the job, what supports you need in order to provide a most favorable environment for your career, and your own accommodation ideas for your particular situation.

WHEN to disclose 

Though there is certainly no one “right” time and place to practice disclosure (it will depend on your individual situation), being proactive is strongly encouraged. Being proactive puts you in better control of your life.

When you decide to disclose your disability to your employer, there may be settings and circumstances in which disclosure is more appropriate than others. Consider the following possibilities:

Circumstance: In a third-party phone call or reference

Example: Employment counselors at the local One-Stop Career Centers have strong connections with local employers and may be willing to serve as a reference for you. Be sure to make clear with the counselor whether you would like him or her to disclose your disability and how you would like your disability to be represented.

Circumstance: In your letter of application or résumé

Example: Some individuals choose to disclose their disabilities in their résumé or letter of application. Having a disability may be viewed as a positive trait in some professions or even as a requirement for some positions. For example, the Workforce Recruitment Program has been established specifically for young adults with disabilities.  Outside of these instances, you should consider carefully if the benefits of disclosure at this point outweigh simply highlighting your ability and skill.

Circumstance: In your cover letter

Example: Some individuals disclose their disabilities in their cover letters. As a rule, attach the cover letter to the back of your résumé so that your skills can be the focal point. Some companies actively recruit people with disabilities to meet Affirmative Action goals.  Again, having a disability is not always a strike against you, but choose carefully when to use this strategy.

Circumstance: Pre-interview

Example: Disclosure prior to the interview is encouraged only when an accommodation is needed for the actual interview. For example, if you use a wheelchair and the office where the interview is to be scheduled is on the second floor of a building without an elevator, you need to make the interviewer aware of your need for accommodations (for example, by suggesting that the interview be moved to a first floor location).

Circumstance: On the employment application

This is an inappropriate question and you are not required to answer it. An employer is permitted to ask whether you can perform the essential functions of the job you are applying for, either on your own or with a reasonable accommodation.

Example: You can, if you choose to, consider other options if the employment application form asks something like, “Do you have any mental or physical limitations that may impact your performance on the job?” You might believe that your disability is not a limitation on your work performance and would therefore respond by answering, “no.” On the other hand, you might decide to use this as an opportunity to indicate that you have a disability that will not limit your performance if you are properly accommodated. Finally, you might just want to indicate that you would prefer to answer this question when you are called for an interview.

Circumstance: At the interview

Example: You might or might not choose to disclose your disability during an interview. If your disability is visible, you might wish to discuss your disability and how it will not get in the way of doing a good job, especially if you have proper accommodations. At this time, you could give examples of how you would perform the job. If your disability is not apparent (invisible), you will need to decide whether or not to disclose your disability based on your comfort and trust levels. You do not have to disclose your disability at this stage. However, it might be helpful to do so in order to show that you can do the job with the right accommodation. At this time, you might want to give examples. Be positive and upbeat; show your confidence in yourself. Don’t be apologetic, defensive, or cocky.

Circumstance: After you’ve been offered a job

Example: Many individuals choose to disclose their disabilities after they have been offered the job. They want to be selected for the position because of their skills, and worry that disclosure prior to the point may influence the interviewer’s decision. However, once hired, you might need accommodations to do the essential functions of the job. Also, if the job requires medical testing and you take medications that will show up in a screening, you may choose to disclose this to the employer at this time.

Circumstance: During your course of employment

Example: Sometimes, individuals with disabilities do not recognize that their disabilities can negatively affect their job performance. This is especially true for people getting their first full-time job. Sometimes, you may feel confident when you begin a job, but become concerned that you may have underestimated your need for an accommodation.

Remember that it is your responsibility to ask for an accommodation if you need one. It is always better to ask for it before your job performance is questioned. Your employer cannot force an accommodation on you, but has the final word in what accommodation you will receive (after consulting with you, of course).

Circumstance: Never

Example: If you are able to perform the essential functions of the job without reasonable accommodation, you need not disclose your disability.

WHAT information to disclose 

Remember that preparation is essential when planning to disclose your disability to your employer. Is your information presented in a clear and concise way that is relevant to your job? If it is, TERRIFIC! If not, make some changes and practice rehearsing your disclosure conversation. Don’t forget that it is unnecessary to disclose very detailed medical or personal information. Get to the point. And keep it positive!

You might wish to present the following information to your employer, supervisor, work mentor, or co-workers:

  • General information about your disability;
  • Why you’ve chosen to disclose your disability, including its impact on your job performance;
  • The types of job accommodations that have worked for you in the past (in previous jobs and in training situations);
  • The types of job accommodations you anticipate needing in the workplace; and
  • How your disability and other life experiences can positively affect your work performance.

Most importantly, keep the disclosure conversation focused on your abilities, not your disability.

To WHOM to disclose 

As a job seeker with a disability, you might choose to disclose information when developing your career plan and searching for employment. You might disclose information to the following individuals:

  • Career counselors
  • Disability-specific adult employment services personnel
  • One-Stop Career Center personnel
  • Prospective employers or human resources personnel
  • Workplace mentors

When selecting the person to disclose to, reflect on the following questions first:

  • Does this person have the power to determine how reasonable the request is for the accommodation?
  • Can the person provide the required accommodation(s)?
  • Is the person responsible for hiring, promoting, or firing?
  • Is the person in a supervisory role and will he or she support me?
  • What experiences does this person have with similar disclosure situations?
  • Do I have respect for and trust in this person’s keeping my disclosure confidential?

Remember that it is important to select a private, confidential, comfortable place to disclose and to allow enough time to discuss the impact of your disability. The person(s) to whom you are disclosing might have questions, suggestions, or concerns that require more time for discussion.

Rights and Responsibilities

Adapted from the University of Wisconsin.

We’ve talked a great deal about the rights afforded to you as a person with a disability. It is important to understand that, as a person with a disability, you also have significant responsibilities to yourself and to your employers, supervisors, mentors, and co-workers. Some of these rights and responsibilities are outlined below:

You have the right to     

  • Have information about your disability treated confidentially and respectfully.
  • Seek information about hiring practices from any organization.
  • Choose to disclose your disability at any time during the employment process.
  • Receive appropriate accommodations in an interview so you may demonstrate your skills and abilities.
  • Be considered for a position based on your skill and merit.
  • Have respectful questioning about your disability for the purpose of reasonable accommodation.
  • Be self-determined and proactive.

You have the responsibility to  

  • Disclose your need for accommodation if you desire any work-related adjustments.
  • Search for jobs that address your skills and abilities.
  • Inform the manager or interview panel about your need for appropriate interview accommodations in a timely manner.
  • Identify appropriate and reasonable accommodations for an interview.
  • Negotiate reasonable accommodation(s) with an employer at the point of job offer and beyond.
  • Bring your skills and merits to the table.
  • Be truthful, self-determined, and proactive.        

My Practice Script

Research shows that having a disclosure “script” and practicing it with friends, teachers, relatives, and mentors can be of great benefit to the youth when the time actually comes to disclose. Most people find that it is easier to talk about the impact of having a disability rather than offering a formal or clinical definition. For example, someone who uses a wheelchair and is arranging  a job interview, might say:

“I’m really looking forward to this interview and I am checking to make sure that the interview room can accommodate my wheelchair.”

During an interview, a person with a hearing impairment who can lip-read and is concerned about communicating on the job might say:

“I can lip-read in face-to-face interaction, but will need TTY services and devices when using the phone.”

 If an employer expresses concern about a worker’s productivity, the worker might say:

 “I am having more difficulty than I anticipated keeping up with my co-workers because of my learning disability. In the past, it has helped to work alongside an experienced mentor.”

Here are some questions and hints you can think about while preparing the disclosure practice script:

  • Write about your positive attributes or strengths first.
  • Identify the limitations or challenges you may face at work because of your disability.
  • Identify which accommodations have worked best for you in the past and why.
  • Consider how disclosing can help the business employer and your co-workers (try to put yourself in the employer’s and coworkers’ shoes).
  • End the script with positive points such as how you expect to succeed in the job with the necessary support.

Source: National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, The 411 on Disability Disclosure.