Author: Tl McMinn
I am a person with disabilities. I use a cane to get around, I need medication to stay (somewhat) awake, I lose focus, my words, and there are days when getting out of bed seems impossible. Overall, I’ve been open with my employers about my disabilities even though I don’t have to be, perhaps even more so because my disabilities are “invisible” or “hidden.” However, as my condition progressed, so did my use of assistive devices, making my disabilities harder to hide. I wasn’t ashamed of them, but I also knew how others viewed disabled folks. When I was no longer able to ‘hide,’ I panicked, wondering if my employers and future employers would accept me as a visibly disabled person. Even though I had done it previously, I found myself struggling with how I would tell them that I am disabled and that I may require accommodations, while convincing them I was still worth the effort.
I struggled with these questions because people with disabilities are stigmatized and stereotyped as incapable of holding down a job, performing a job properly, or only being capable of doing certain types of jobs (AODA.ca, Inclusively.com). Stereotypes and stigmas like these influence how others perceive people with disabilities and contribute to this community’s chronic underemployment (NOD.org). And while the growth and feasibility of remote work has made it easier for some disabled folks to find and keep jobs, the victory is twofold: remote or hybrid work has been a common accessibility request among the disabled community, one that was often denied because it was not seen as practical. However, the moment it became a priority for everyone else, remote work became not only a possibility, but something we’ve come to rely on (CNN.com).
Disclosure isn’t easy and there is no one way to do it. To help, we’ve compiled a list of benefits and disadvantages of disclosure from pre-employment to employment. I’ve chosen to start with disadvantages because there are risks involved with disclosure that individuals need to be aware of, but it doesn’t mean that they outweigh the benefits.
Disadvantages and Benefits of Disclosure
There is no legal requirement to disclose a disability, but for some, disclosure is a fact of life as those with more overt disabilities disclose them whenever they enter a room. Their appearance or their use of an assistive device, such as a white cane, a walker, or an alternative communication device, make it clear that they are disabled. Those who can ‘hide’ their disabilities often have the option and can choose whether or not to tell their employer. However, the choice of disclosure is frequently taken away when folks with hidden or unapparent disabilities require accommodations; because of the lack of ‘clear’ disability, they are often required to provide medical documentation that states (or proves) that they are disabled and that they do need accommodations (AskJAN.org).
There are a lot of benefits of disclosing one’s disabilities, but it is important to know that there are disadvantages that should be acknowledged. For instance, disclosing before an interview or job offer can influence the opinions of some employers/hiring managers who are unable (or unwilling) to look past a person’s disability from extending an interview or a job offer. This stigma that surrounds what it means to be disabled is a common reason why many without apparent disabilities choose to stay in the proverbial closet and is also impacted by an individual’s fear of being treated poorly, being portrayed as less capable, or having their work viewed with different or lower expectations (Indeed.com).
When and how you decide to disclose is your choice and there is no one way to disclose a disability. Below are some possibilities of when and how you may choose to disclose a disability.
When disclosing in the cover letter or application form
When an employer/hiring manager is disability-focused, meaning that the employer is unable to look beyond a person’s disability and can only see what you can’t do instead of everything you could do for the organization, disclosing at this stage may prevent you from getting a job interview.
Some people choose to disclose during the application process and some applications will ask you outright if you have a disability. Applications that ask for self-declaration of disability are often employers/hiring managers that are pursuing affirmative action efforts or because they are an equal opportunity employer (AskJAN.org, Canada.ca). Self-declaration is voluntary and may be advantageous as these organizations are actively looking to hire a person with a disability. It is important to note that these types of self-declarations are different from those an employer may ask you to fill out for tracking and/or DEI purposes.
How to disclose in the cover letter or application form
When disclosing your disability in a cover letter, focus on the positives and what it has helped you accomplish rather than what you can’t or can no longer do (Careers with Disabilities.com). You can mention limitations you may encounter because of your disability, but highlight how you’ve worked around them and is a good space to mention any accommodations you may require. For example, a job posting requires you to be able to type 60 words per minute (wpm). You can type 80wpm, but as a person that has poor dexterity in their fingers, you need a specialized keyboard in order to accomplish this task.
I am a fast and accurate typist, and I have the ability to type up to 80 words per minute. As a person with a disability, I use [insert type of keyboard here] to accomplish this and would need one in order to be proficient in my job.
When disclosing before or during a job interview
Not all employers/hiring managers will ask if you need accommodations to attend an interview (either virtual, phone, or in-person), so if you require modifications (closed captions technology, accessible space, extra time for testing), you should be prepared to disclose your disability and have a general understanding of the accommodations you may need.
Disclosure before or during an interview demonstrates that you are forthright and confident in your abilities, but, like disclosure in a cover letter/application, it has the potential to influence an employer’s/hiring manager’s decision. This is especially true if you have a more visible or physical disability, as an employer/hiring manager may be surprised that you have come this far without disclosing your disability (even if it has no effect on your ability to do the job). And, while it shouldn’t matter, it can lead to an employer/hiring manager asking irrelevant questions about your disability rather than discussing how you are qualified for the job and may impact their decision on whether you are right for the job.
Disclosure before an interview gives an employer/hiring manager the opportunity to prepare and ensure that your specific accommodations, should you need any, will be in place and shows how you manage matters relating to your disability. If you require no or minor accommodations, you can choose to disclose during an interview. At this point, you have the opportunity to explain/discuss your accommodation needs and how they will help you perform your job and can provide an opportunity to explain any gaps in your resume/CV that are related to your disability.
How to disclose before or during a job interview
If you are concerned about how you may come across in an interview, you can prepare for success by contacting the employer/hiring manager ahead of time to ensure that you have the necessary accommodations. This could also be an opportunity to let them know what they can expect when they meet with you. For example, an Autistic individual may inform the employer/hiring manager that eye contact makes them uncomfortable and that they are most confident expressing themselves in writing. Providing this type of information beforehand gives the employer/hiring manager time to prepare for the interview so that they know what to expect and gives the applicant the best chance at success (Indeed.com).
If you plan on disclosing during an interview, have some notes prepared in order to discuss your disability in a positive manner,* including quick answers to any potential questions an employer/hiring manager may ask, and brief explanations of the types of accommodations, if any, you may need to do the job to the best of your abilities. For example, a designer with chronic back pain may talk about how their search for an ergonomic chair that alleviated their pain helped them gain a new understanding of the importance of both design and functionality.
*Please note: I am in no way insinuating that you need to pretend to love your disability or that you must always view your disability in a positive way. You don’t. That being said, we live in a world that requires us to prove that we are just as capable as those who do not have disabilities. Unfortunately, this means that we are often forced to share how we can get things done despite our disabilities, especially when speaking with people who don’t understand. Job interviews are all about strategy and you should know how to use your disability to your advantage.
When disclosing after a job offer and for existing workers
Not unlike disclosure during an interview, non-disclosure of a disability, particularly more visible disabilities, may be misinterpreted, especially among folks with ableist views. Lack of disclosure can be interpreted as dishonest and/or as an attempt to ‘trick’ the employer/hiring manager and can cause them to question your honesty.
You may prefer to wait until you have a job offer or are settled into your job before disclosing a disability because it isn’t something that affects your work or it isn’t something you discuss with people you don’t know well (Indeed.com). You may also wait to disclose because you didn’t know what or if you needed accommodations. Disclosure at this point is often about getting the support you need in order to do your job to the best of your ability because disability happens. Whether it’s temporary (broken bone, surgery), new (arthritis, hearing loss), or pre-existing (mental health, Crohn’s disease), it is something that most people will encounter during their lifetime. Disclosure may become a necessity, particularly if you have to explain any absences, hospital visits, or poor performance reviews.
This does not mean you are wrong for waiting.
As was mentioned, there is no legal requirement to disclose a disability, and those that have a choice should only disclose when it feels right, when your job performance may suffer, and/or when it becomes a necessity (Supported Employment.ca, EEOC.gov).
How to disclose after a job offer and for existing workers
If you can do your work without accommodation and without concern for safety, you do not have to disclose. However, if you would benefit from accommodations, consider how it might improve your work performance and your quality of life. When disclosing a disability after getting a job, many have found constructing a script of what you plan to say to be helpful. For example, this script should describe the disability in simple terms, highlight your strengths, the types of duties that may be affected or difficult to perform, and the possible accommodations you may need to overcome any challenges you may encounter (Recruit Guelph.ca).
“I am (highlight your strengths/skills/abilities/qualifications relevant to the job) and can perform the essential functions of this job, but sometimes (mention your limitations) might impact my ability to (describe the duties you may have difficulty performing). I work best when (describe the specific accommodations you need to support the duties you have difficulty performing).” (Discoverability.net)
Regardless of whether your disability is immediately apparent or not, disclosure is difficult. We have no control over how someone else is going to react and too often disclosure of a disability put us at a disadvantage. But you are not disadvantaged because of your disability, only by people’s attitudes and perceptions. So however or whenever you choose to disclose your disability, just be sure that it feels right for you. And for those that don’t have a choice? Remember that you aren’t alone.
Does your workplace need help to create a supportive atmosphere that encourages disclosure of disability? Book a meeting with one of our associates.
Click here for a list of employment resources for people with disabilities in North America.