Disclosure Discourse: To Reveal or Conceal a Disability in the Workplace

By Kawana Neufville, M.S, CRC, LPCA, Assistant Director, Learning Assistance Center & Disability Services, Wake Forest University

Many students preparing to transition from college to the world of work are nervous about job opportunities and what lies Woman hiding face with scarfahead for them. Some are worried about job location, job security, starting pay and even benefit packages. However, there is a segment of the college student population that has one more factor to consider when seeking employment…their disability. Although, attitudes towards disability have greatly improved over the last two decades, there is still some existing stigma and unease surrounding the topic.

Young adults planning to enter the workforce have grown up in a time where it is more acceptable to be open about your disability status. However, the decision about whether or not to disclose a disability to an employer remains a touchy topic. Since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, there have been federal safeguards put in place to discourage discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various settings, including schools, workplaces, public institutions, transportation and more. The ADA makes it illegal for an employer to refuse employment or reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities. In fact, since the implementation of the ADA and other governmental initiatives, many employers enthusiastically recruit and hire individuals with disabilities.

There are several online resources such as Ability Jobs or CareerOneStop that help individuals with disabilities search for employers who have a strong reputation for being disability friendly. In addition, many employers have programs within their institution geared towards recruitment and retention of individuals with disabilities. Although the ADA does not cover private businesses, with less than 15 employees, many employers out there choose to pursue a diverse workforce and are committed to providing a more inclusive work environment. Some ways to identify whether or not a company values these concepts is to review their messaging and practices regarding recruitment and employment. Here are some questions you can ask yourself about a company as you job search:

Do they purposefully include a statement about diversity and equal access for individuals with disabilities?

Do they provide equal access during the screening and selection process?

Is there an option to request accommodations during the initial application process?

The aforementioned web resources for job searching are geared more towards individuals with visible disabilities, meaning their disability is readily detectible. Conversely, those with hidden or invisible disabilities may feel conflicted about utilizing resources that immediately identify them as someone with a disability. Since disclosure is a personal choice and is not required, some may choose not to immediately disclose their disability status to prospective employers, especially during the job search and application stage of the employment process. Though disclosure can be a very good thing, as it could allow you more access to the tools you need to perform your job at your full capacity, it can be difficult to decide when, what, and to whom you should disclose.

Prior to disclosing, do your homework! Research the company’s employee handbook to determine the correct process for requesting accommodations. Make sure that you disclose to the appropriate person or department at the appropriate time. Also, share only the basic details about your disability that are necessary to provide context and support for the accommodations you are requesting. Additionally, since you have a right to privacy, you do not have to disclose your disability to co-workers or colleagues. Though they may recognize that you are utilizing appropriate accommodations, they do not need to know why, unless you are comfortable sharing that information.

We are living in a time where progress is at the forefront of most people’s minds. We are looking to the past for insight on changes to make and looking to the future for inspiration to keep us going. The prospects for individuals with disabilities has greatly improved since the ADA. However, efforts continue to be made towards equity in the world of work for those historically disenfranchised based on disability status.  As George Bernard Shaw once said, “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.”

Go forth and be great!

For additional reading, check out the following resources:

Fighting Discrimination in Employment Under the ADA

U.S. Department of Labor Disability Resources

How to Get a Job When You Have a Disability

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