How To Disclose a Disability to Your Employer
Updated April 18, 2023
Disclosing a disability to a current or potential employer can be a stressful but perhaps necessary step. The fear of discrimination, unconscious bias and other negative consequences might lead many to withhold information about their physical or mental health from others. However, telling an employer about a disability — be it visible, like cerebral palsy, or invisible, like chronic pain or depression — may be necessary to help you receive adequate accommodations to perform your job.
In this article, we explain why you might consider telling your employer about a disability, and how and when you might have the conversation.
What is considered a disability in the workplace?
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Disabilities outlined by the ADA include (but are in no way limited to) deafness, blindness, non-functioning or missing limbs, cancer, diabetes, asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, arthritis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, HIV and depression.
The World Health Organization, cited in the World Bank’s World Report on Disability, estimates one billion people — about 15% of the global population — experience some form of disability. However, statistics in the workplace can be difficult to quantify because many employees either don’t disclose a disability when they are hired, or they acquire a disability after working at a company for several years. Employees may not report a disability because they don’t believe it impacts their ability to work or are never given the opportunity to disclose it.
Related: A Guide To Activism in the Workplace
Why some employees don’t disclose a disability
The diversity of disabilities can lead to a wide range of experiences in the workplace, and the question of whether or not to disclose it can be highly personal. Before exploring reasons why it may be beneficial to disclose a disability, it can be helpful to understand why people might choose not to divulge that information.
“People with invisible disabilities, in particular, are often hesitant to disclose their disability to coworkers or their managers,” suggests Amira Sounny-Slitine, a hiring specialist at Indeed Hire. “Many people choose not to disclose their disability because they don’t want to be treated differently within their working relationships. Others don’t want to come across as less capable than their counterparts. Many people fear they will be viewed differently or have different expectations from everyone else after disclosing this information. In some cases, disclosing a disability can have negative consequences like being treated poorly in the workplace or being seen as making excuses.”
Emma Esparza, an Indeed career coach, recalled working with a candidate with severe autism. “Ultimately it was his choice, but we decided it wasn’t necessary to disclose it up front since he could reasonably work through it. We identified key areas that could be tricky for him — based on my knowledge and his past interviews — and focused on prepping for them.”
Why should I tell my employer about my disability?
If you have a disability, you might consider informing your workplace for any number of reasons, which might include:
To request reasonable accommodations
Job applicants and employees alike may request “reasonable accommodations” in connection with disclosing a disability. For example, an applicant who is deaf might request a sign language interpreter during a job interview.
Other examples of accommodation requests might include the ability to work from home, altered work schedules (such as scheduling work around physical therapy appointments), a quiet work environment or headphones to cut out distractions, and changes in supervisory methods (such as written instructions from a manager who would usually be more hands-off).
To explain an unusual circumstance
Someone with an invisible disability like Crohn’s disease, for example, may prefer to not disclose their disability to their colleagues, but it may be important to share to help explain periodic absences from team meetings or work. If you are primarily seeking understanding from your colleagues, as opposed to accommodations, it can be as simple as privately telling your supervisor about the difficulties you encounter due to your medical condition.
Keeping a disability a secret can also be taxing on your mental resources, which may affect your energy and productivity. To ease this burden, some people might choose to disclose to their close friends at work, or after they’ve built a rapport with their supervisor.
The benefits employers get from making workplace accommodations for disabled employees can outweigh the costs, according to research by the Job Accommodation Network, a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the U.S. Department of Labor. The study found that accommodations resulted in benefits like retaining valuable employees, improved productivity and employee morale, a reduction in workers’ compensation risks and costs, and an improvement in company diversity. Most accommodations cost these employers little to nothing.
When you might consider disclosing a disability to your employer
For many with visible disabilities, the choice may not necessarily be whether or not they should disclose it, but rather when the optimal time is to do so. However, if you have an invisible disability, the timing, if at all, is often up to you.
“I usually say it’s up to the person—some people want to be upfront, but some people want to be on a level playing field,” says Sounny-Slitine. "Ideally, employees will disclose a disability and request accommodations before performance problems arise, or at least before they become too serious.”
You might consider disclosing a disability:
During the application process. Some people choose to be upfront because their disability is a point of pride or defines who they are as an individual. Others disclose a disability when scheduling an interview to prepare the hiring manager and avoid any uncomfortable questioning.
After you are extended a job offer. If your disability does not prohibit you from performing the essential functions of the job with or without accommodations, there may be no reason to disclose it before you get an offer. Many individuals might do this to help avoid possible bias in the interview process and ensure the employer focuses solely on their qualifications.
During your employment. Many employees wait until after they develop relationships with their coworkers and supervisors before they disclose personal information like a disability. Others, perhaps, have worked at a company for many years but are suddenly in pain and can’t do their job effectively. If you’re having trouble performing certain functions of your job due to a disability, you might consider disclosing it so you or your supervisor can begin discussions about potential accommodations.
Related: 15 Careers Working with the Disabled
How to tell an employer about a disability
Telling an employer about something as personal as a disability can be as nerve-wracking as asking for a raise. Describing your disability and any work accommodations you might require via email may be a good option to help ease anxiety.
You might consider preparing possible solutions to present to your employer or suggestions for appropriate accommodations. For example, you might request time off for appointments, working remotely, a lateral move or an ergonomic chair. Your employer may also have solutions you’re not aware of.
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