To Disclose, or not to Disclose

Small fish that looks like sand camoflauged and hidden in the sand

That really is the question. And one lived by people with disabilities on a VERY regular basis when interviewing

This article is not legal advice. If you have questions about how disclosing a disability can impact you legally, ask your attorney, who is most definitely not me.

This question* showed up on my LinkedIn feed recently.

Do you tell a supervisor when you first start a job about a disability, or do you not say anything and hope they don’t find out?

The answers were split just about 50/50 with half saying “disclose” and half saying “don’t disclose”. Since the OPs contact group is not well-known to me, it is hard to say which answers belonged to people with disabilities, and which belonged to hiring managers. But there were a couple of responses that literally left me shaking in anger. Those two responses used words that should never, EVER be used in the same sentence with the word disability: burden and deceitful. These two words perpetuate the fear of the impact of people with disabilities being in the workplace, the unsubstantiated myths we are constantly battling against, and exacerbate the “us vs. them” mentality that can exist on both sides of the table.

Disability Myths

Many people with disabilities fear disclosing their status because of all the myths swirling around disabilities — that we have unsatisfactory performance, that we will cost the employer more, that when things get too hard we will quit. All of these have been proven to be false in rigorous studies time and time again, yet these myths still exist because people keep repeating the falsehoods. Most definitely “fake news”, even though the topic doesn’t involve politics. The myths are even more pronounced when the disabilities involve mental health. Mental health, even in the disability community, frequently appears as an afterthought.

Here’s a reality that most people don’t think about for comparison purposes. Smokers cost employers $5800 to over $10,000 per year. Why aren’t people talking about that instead?

  • Is it deceitful to not tell your employer that you are a smoker?
  • Do you create a burden for your employer if you are a smoker?

If you aren’t willing to use these words in conjunction with smoking (which at least initially is a choice), you really shouldn’t even be thinking about using them in conjunction with disabilities.

Here are my thoughts as a disabled person AND a hiring manager — and I haven’t always been a hiring manager focused on accessibility, I have run huge QA and engineering operations departments in the past.

If you don’t need an accommodation, your disability / health status is none of the hiring managers effing business

Visible disability? Invisible disability? Doesn’t matter. If you want to disclose, that’s YOUR decision. If you choose not to disclose, you are absolutely not being deceitful by keeping it to yourself. You are merely choosing not to discuss an irrelevant part of your application / interview / on boarding process, just as if you forgot to tell me that your favorite color is blue or you don’t drink diet soda.

If you do need an accommodation, it is none of the hiring manager’s effing business until AFTER you have received a written offer

Once an offer is presented in writing, it is difficult to rescind. When/If you decide you need a reasonable accommodation you should make that request in writing and track every communication you have about it. Informal accommodations are worth the paper they are written on; effectively nothing, because by definition, informal accommodations are not written. Changes in management can annihilate informal accommodations. What your previous boss let you do your new boss doesn’t have to unless it is in writing. However, you must disclose your disability if you want an accommodation, there is absolutely no way around that. An employer refusing to discuss an accommodation or retaliating for the request is just flat out illegal. There are protections for your disclosure though, keep reading.

You can limit medical status disclosures as part of the reasonable accommodation process

  • If you have an visible disability and are asking for an accommodation related directly that disability, your do NOT need to provide proof you are disabled — It is visible !!! Ex: I need a ramp to the stage because presenting at orientation is part of my job description and I use a wheelchair. Full stop, you are done. They don’t need your 55 year old medical records discussing why you are in a wheelchair. Particularly in the US, this can be a very expensive proposition, especially if the records don’t exist or your clinic charges for this type of work.
  • If you have an invisible disability and are asking for an accommodation, you may be asked to provide medical proof. Your employer is NOT entitled to your entire medical file, only the information directly related to the invisible disability and accommodation. Ex: if you are asking for CART for meetings with more than 2 people to accommodate a hearing loss, you do not need to disclose your HIV status. Make sure your records are sent to you, then you review and give to your employer. Kaiser in particular has a nasty habit of sending the “kitchen sink” (i.e. your entire medical record) even if you specifically request info from only one diagnosis or one doctor.
  • If you do end up providing medical information, it must be kept confidential unless you give the employer permission to discuss it with other employees. If asked, your manager can tell your co-workers something like “Sheri has an accommodation that allows her to work from home twice a week”. Your manager CANNOT say “Sheri has fibromyalgia which is why she is allowed to work from home”.

Notice that I am using the phrase “none of the hiring manager’s effing business” a lot?

The only rule about disclosing a disability is that the decision is YOUR call, and IMHO, you should only when you are sure disclosing is an advantage.

When is disclosing a disability an advantage?

There are some cases where disclosing you have a disability might be to your advantage.

When the job description is hinting there is a desire for a person with a disability.

You will never see “disabled people only need apply” in a job description

You may see:

  • Native user of assistive technology desired
  • Extensive screen reader experience necessary
  • Preference for graduates who have studied under 504 plans

Use this to your advantage !!!

When there might be government incentives available

It is not in the government’s interest for people to be on long term unemployment and SSI. If you are working with Vocational Rehabilitation or your state Department of Rehabilitation, there might be incentives the government will pay to your employer. No choice but to disclose there if you want to take advantage of that.

When you want to use your disability to explain how you have a skill the employer is looking for

Grit? Determination?? Problem solving ??? Multi-tasking ???? If you think it is to your advantage to use your disability to explain how you possess these soft skills, go right ahead.

When you want to use your disability answer a question

“Explain a obstacle that you have overcome” is one of the worlds most common interview questions. I never ask it, but many do. If you think it is to your advantage to use your disability to explain how you have overcome an obstacle or answer some other question that comes up in the interview process, that’s your call.

If you feel it is awkward to have a visible disability but not disclose it.

It’s hard not to talk about the elephant in the room if you are using an ASL interpreter or a wheelchair for example. So it may be easier to address it up front, make it clear that with accommodations you are just as good (if not better) than the other candidates, and move on.

There is nothing “deceitful” about keeping private information private when you do not have to disclose

I am a transparent and honest person. If I choose not to disclose I have glaucoma in an interview that’s *MY* business. Anyone who claims that you lied by not disclosing a disability, pregnancy, or upcoming surgery in an interview is being a privileged busy body.

There can be negatives to not disclosing

Is your non-disclosure and attempt to “pass” as someone without a disability? “Passing” is usually associated with ethnicity, but it also applies to disabilities. Passing is the way people conceal their impairments to avoid disability stigma and make themselves appear to others as “normal”.

Passing in the end will cost both you and your employer. In the article titled “Why People Hide Their Disabilities at Work”, Harvard Business Review authors Pooja Jain-Link and Julia Taylor Kennedy brilliantly summarized the burnout issue caused by “passing” with the following opening:

If you’re hiding a disability, the daily grind of early mornings, deadlines, and office politics is compounded into a far heavier burden. You live in fear of being discovered. You work overtime to mask your authentic self.

This HBR report found that people hiding their status as a person with a disability are 2X more likely to feel anxious and 4X more likely to feel isolated. This adds to the overload and may tip the burnout scales.

“Hoping they don’t find out” is not a winning strategy if you think your disability may impact either your work or how you present yourself in the workplace. If you don’t disclose and you have a performance issue related to your disability that could have been helped by a reasonable accommodation, you are not protected.

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