To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Contributed by Upbound At Work

While attending school, an individual with a disability receives the protections, modifications, and accommodations outlined in their Individual Education Plan (IEP) as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The disclosure of a disability has already been made; the needed accommodations and modifications are delineated in the IEP.  The unfortunate reality for many individuals and families is that, once an individual leaves school and enters adult life, the security of an IEP no longer exists.  The student now has to self-advocate for his or her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  

Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “… is designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities.”  The ADA goes on to note that “Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees. A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable an applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions.”

Every day, millions of Americans with disabilities wrestle with disclosing their disability.  The decision to disclose one’s disability is a very personal decision.  Often, if someone has a disability that is visible, the disclosure is self-evident; however, for those with disabilities that are not per se visible, like with autism, they have to determine if the benefits of disclosing outweigh the risks.

Why disclose a disability:  Disclosing a disability may appear to be a frightening and uncomfortable task, but programs like the Autism Alliance of Michigan and the Job Accommodations Network can help guide you (for free!).   Additionally, according to the ADA, only people who disclose their disability (or whose disability is suspected/self-evident) are protected from discrimination.  The rationale is that an employer cannot discriminate against you if it knows that you have a disability.  Disclosure is also necessary to request reasonable accommodations from your employer (or prospective employer).  The company has an obligation to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities so they can succeed at work – but it is only required to do so for people it knows have a disability.  

What to disclose:  It is important to know that you do not need to be overly specific when disclosing your disability.  A recommended best practice is to highlight the positive and negative effects that the disability may have on job performance and any accommodations that might help you perform at your best.  

When to disclose: There is no right, wrong, or even best time to disclose. However, when disclosing, it is recommended that you select a private space.  As you disclose information regarding the disability, do not dwell on what is difficult. Emphasize what functions can be performed along with strengths.  Also, expect the employer to ask questions.  

Who to disclose to:  You can disclose to as many or as few people as you would like.  That said, it is generally recommended that, if you choose to disclose your disability, you do so to your supervisor or someone in Human Resources.  These are the individuals who are most likely able to implement the accommodations you need.

Possible disclosure times could include:

  • On the application, resume, or in a cover letter with an application. 
  • During the interview. 
  • Before any drug testing.
  • After receipt of a job offer.
  • During the course of employment. 
  • Never disclose – this is a personal choice.

How to disclose: As you prepare to disclose, reflect on what it means to be a person with a disability.  Educate yourself about your disability and how it impacts your daily life. Research the company and their attitude towards individuals with disabilities. Prepare for any questions the employer may ask. Seek advice from other individuals with disabilities who have been successful in finding and maintaining employment. Remember that the disclosure of a disability is to be treated confidentially.

“I have mixed feelings about disclosure in the workplace. It depends a lot on the person and the job type. Disclosure comes with some risks, including potentially being bullied by co-workers or losing your job. Although in theory, the ADA protects you from being fired because of your disability, in reality, employers can find ways around it. That said, it is often worth the risk, and I would encourage people to disclose for three reasons”:

1. In cases where the ADA can protect you, you will be covered. You are not covered under ADA unless you disclose. 

2. You will no longer need to mask your autism. Prolonged masking is associated with mental health challenges. Being comfortable being your true self is best for you. 

3. You provide an opportunity for neurotypical co-workers to learn about autism which will make things better for the next generation entering the job market.”

Need more assistance with disability disclosure? Please contact AAoM’s employment program, Upbound at Work! 

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