When and how to disclose a disability at work

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Editor’s note: Today we have a guest post from Sarah Laugtug, who is a writer, career consultant, and the executive editor of ilivewithadisability.com.  Today’s post is part of an ongoing series  about job searching and working with a disability. You can read the first installment, “Job seeking when you have a disability,” here.

Having a disability on the job is hard enough; having to decide whether to disclose a disability is even harder. The following suggestions are especially important for people with invisible disabilities, although it pertains to people with visible ones as well. We will look at some of the reasons why you would want to disclose. Examples will demonstrate how to be discrete when requesting a job adjustment. We will discuss examples of reasonable accommodations, as well as look at your rights if you feel you have been discriminated.

Why would you share your disability at work?
In some instances, disclosing a disability can be advantageous, for instance, if you work for an organization assisting people with disabilities. In the most probable scenario, however, it is necessary to disclose in order to get an accommodation so you can perform the functions of the job and be successful.

Before disclosing, get a game plan. You want to give this some thought, rather than jumping in headfirst. It is ideal to request assistance sooner, rather than later to prevent future disciplinary action. It is also useful to have an idea of what types of accommodations are available to you, so you can help yourself and your employer decide the best option. As much as we would like them to be, employers are not mind readers. Your employer needs to know why you need assistance on the job. If you do not inform your employer about your needs, she definitely cannot help you.

So, you have decided to disclose…
How does one ask for an accommodation? How much do you need to reveal about your disability? Well, you want to say as little as possible about your condition, while still providing an adequate reason for the modification. Be confident and direct: show you can do your job more effectively with the addition of an accommodation. For instance, “If I were able to have a tape recorder at our meetings, I could use it to remind me of what was requested of me.”

To avoid possible complications, write a letter of your request. Include in the letter your need for an accommodation in accordance to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (You do not need to identify your disability; however, be aware that the law permits your employer to request medical documentation of your disability.) The ADA requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation, unless doing so will create an “undue hardship.” Also in that letter, it would be helpful to suggest accommodation ideas to your employer; after all, you know your disabilities better than anyone does.

Contrary to what some people believe, a reasonable accommodation does not permit employees to avoid doing their job; rather, it allows the opportunity for the person with the disability to be able to participate in employment activities, just as any other employee would. Telling an employer you need to come in late for work every day is not a reasonable request and your employer will most likely say no; in addition, it could trigger your employer’s suspicions about why you need the time off. On the other hand, a reasonable request justifies your need for the accommodation, such as, coming into work later because a medication for a condition you have prevents you from being alert at 9am. Realize, you did not disclose your disability; instead, you stated, “Condition that requires medication.” It is effective, yet tells the employer you have a disability (a condition requiring medication), and that you need an accommodation (the schedule adjustment).

There are limitless accommodation ideas available for various disabilities. For example, a woman who tires easily might request frequent breaks throughout her shift. A man with an attention deficit disorder may suggest purchasing a pair of noise-canceling headphones so he can minimize distractions. A man undergoing chemotherapy treatment may need to take a leave of absence. These are examples of reasonable accommodations; they allow the employee to perform the necessary job functions, but they do not cause undue hardship to the employer. Many accommodations are low or no cost. If you do not know what different accommodations are available to you, check out The Job Accommodation Network, or JAN. It may also be beneficial to pass this resource along to your supervisor since it contains information specifically for employers.

Discrimination is a reasonable concern for people who have disclosed their disabilities; however, the ADA helps to prevent this. The ADA was designed to provide people with disabilities the same opportunities as people without disabilities. Unfortunately, discrimination does still exist in the workplace. If you believe you have been discriminated, you have the option of contacting the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). The EEOC will investigate the claim and create recommendations based on the facts.

Disclosing a disability on the job is essential if you need an accommodation. Remember that you are your own disability expert. Do some research about accommodations and save your employer some time — he will appreciate it. You cannot get what you don’t ask for, so if you need an accommodation, even if you don’t know what it would be, make sure to speak up for yourself, your job success depends on it.

Have you had this conversation at work? Let us know how you’ve gone about it and what your experience was like.

  1. I landed a job after 15 months and within the first few days I requested an accommodation for my Multiple Chemical Sensitivity disability (MCS) and went through the HR department to be sure I was going about it the correct way.

    This was the first time I had to make this request as I only discovered that I have MCS within the past year although I have had issues with sick buildings in the past and knew I was much more sensitive than most folks to all sorts of chemicals and allergens.

    Although I might have handled the accommodation process a bit more delicately, it did not work out for me due to a toxic and hostile work environment, and I was terminated from the position after only 6 weeks on the job (and it was only 30 hours a week).

    I did make some mistakes on the job, but that is understandable because 1) I was still new and learning the job and 2) the chemicals in scented products affect the cognitive thinking processes, concentration and memory not to mention the headaches, nausea and upper respiratory inflammation). And, it certainly didn’t help that the environment was hostile and oppressive.

    I was ambushed, I was given no warning and now I am devastated. Since the termination, I have been busy networking with other MCS folks and organizations that advocate on behalf of those with disabilities.

    My employment options are very slim and my future is very uncertain right now.

    Thank you for posting this important article.

  2. When I’m applying or interesting in a job with an employer based on job postings from the Internet, I do not mention that I’m profoundly deaf (both ears). I just posted my resume and expressed my interests in a position and with the company. I have good work experiences and history as well as having good, employable skills, and never did anything illegally in the past.

    When I received emails from the employers asking if I can be available for an interview, I am compelled to mention to them that I’m deaf and in need of a sign language interpreter for the interview only (to ensure that I understand their questions and convey my answers clearly; and if hired, may only need interpreter for a brief training or settling into the job period, after that, I have no need for one).

    All of sudden, there are no more follow-ups from the employers after the fact. :( It is as if being deaf with good employable skills and work history is suddenly not good enough for an interview. In my follow-up, I mention ADA to the employers but that doesn’t seem to register with them. They just backed out.

    As it turns out, employers doesn’t wanted to pay for sign language interpreters (too costly for them!) if they assume I would need one every day. That is never true in my case in the past. It is only for the interview period (usually up to an hour or less), and if hired, only for few days for training or settling into job period. In most cases, interpreters aren’t needed all day if the deaf employee is already becoming familiar with the job’s tasks in less than 2 or 3 days after starting, and would call upon one if something’s very important come up like a mandatory meeting or training, or a serious problem arises that might affect the deaf employee’s job future.

    A lot of deaf people I know have variously good job skills and work history but most of them doesn’t have jobs right now because employers aren’t willing to interview or hire them on the assumption they have to pay for sign language interpreters, as required by ADA, and may be not wanting to work with deaf people. It’s damn frustrating and ridiculous. I can speak well and I have a hearing aid that I use to hear and to understand communication-wise, though I may still need interpreters for rather very important or serious issues by a company.

    • I know how you feel. I lost a job a little ovwer two years ago because of my inability to walk well, of course that was not the “official” reason I was let go. Since then I ended up getting a very low paying job at a hotel working the night shift. I have applied for many jobs that I am more than qualified for and when the employers call they are impressed with me over the phone. However when I show up for the interview on crutches all of a sudden there are “more qualifed applicants.” Just because the legs don’t work so well anymore doesn’t mean the brain doesn’t work.

  3. This article was not very helpful& confusing. You need to be able to document that you are able to perform the essential job duties of the position. This requires you to work closely with HR, the job posting, & your supervisor. As part of your preparation, you should be aware of accommodations. In the case of the deaf gentleman, perhaps he could work with State rehab or VA & have them provide an interpreter at no cost to the employer. He would report to the interview w/ the interpreter & then state that he is deaf. If the cost of the accommodation is extremely expensive the company does have the right to deny employment.

  4. Dear Sarah,


    In my experience, one of the hardest things to help a person with disabilities overcome is their lack of self esteem. My former wife has non-physical disabilities have hampered her all of her life; it was an issue of “shame” ( for lack of a better word) from her parents on down. I tried for our entire relationship to help her see her possibilities, her capabilities and her worth both in society and in her self but to no avail. How/what/can those who care about someone with disabilities do to help them understand that the root word for disabilities is ABILITY! and help them get past a lifetime of disparagement?

  5. Sarah,

    I know this is a blog and therefore your opinion, but you gave advice to the already employed person with a mild disability. How about some advice for the obvious disability, such as wheelchair users.

    I’m a wheelchair user and my condition doesn’t affect my cognitive skills. Had a interview for an internship lined up with a date and time scheduled. I did as I was told and dropped the “I use a wheelchair for mobility” bomb. The person backed off about the interview and said he would call me after some fact finding about the requirements for the job. Needless to say he never called back.

    This pseudo-discrimination will always continue to be a roadblock to employment for most wheelchair users. How do we as a community get over this hurdle to gain employment and slight freedom from the “man”?

  6. Pingback: Success on the Job with a Disability : The Work Buzz

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