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When Should You Disclose a Disability to a Potential Employer?

disability accommodation

If you’re a professional with a disability, you may be wondering if and when you should disclose your disability to a potential employer. Are you legally obligated to discuss your disability if it will affect your job performance, and at what stage of the application process should you say something? It’s a difficult subject to bring up, and you might have concerns about hiring bias.

The thing is, you’re not alone. 

A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovations titled “Disabilities and Inclusion” explains that 30% of the professional workforce in the US has a mental or physical difference that meets the US Department of Labor’s definition of disability. However, according to the Harvard Business Review, only 39% of those professionals disclose that disability to an employer.

Which brings us to the first point—you don’t need to disclose your disability during the application process.

What’s Your Legal Obligation?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits employers from asking any disability-related questions until after a conditional job offer has been made, but only if all applicants at the same stage are asked the same questions. 

Likewise, an employer cannot ask an existing employee any disability-related questions, unless they meet the following conditions:

  1. The questions are in response to an employee’s request for reasonable accommodations. In this case, the employee only has to disclose information that is relevant to their request.
  2. All employees are asked the same questions.

When Should You Disclose a Disability?

There isn’t a “right” time to disclose a disability. For some people with a visible disability, or those who require accommodation during the application process, there is no option but to discuss their disability early in the process.

If you have an invisible disability and don’t require accommodations at the moment, there are other options.

It might feel like the most honest decision is to share the fact of your disability before beginning a new job. However, there are pros and cons to consider before taking this course of action.

Pros

  • If you tell an employer about your disability before you start working for them, it can be a relief to know you won’t need to have the conversation later.
  • You can begin your next role as your authentic self and know that you’re welcome.
  • How you’re treated throughout the rest of the process will demonstrate how your potential employer will work with you to accommodate your needs in the future.
  • You might work together with the employer to find solutions that make it easier for you to perform your job responsibilities, like working from home for several days a week. 

Cons

  • It’s hard to find the right opportunity to broach the subject during an interview or in your application materials. 
  • Although employers aren’t legally allowed to take disability into account when they screen candidates, bias can come still affect their hiring decision.
  • You may find yourself wondering if your disability was a factor if you don’t receive a job offer.
  • This discussion can be uncomfortable and could reveal another person’s prejudice.

The perfect thank-you note is the missing element to your interview strategy. 


Tips on How to Ask an Employer for Accommodations

If you choose to disclose a disability to your employer, consider the following:

  1. disability accommodationIf you’re disclosing your disability because accommodation is needed, you should inform someone who can act on the information—for example, a manager or someone within human resources.
  2. Once you’ve identified the most suitable person to speak with, arrange to meet with them at a time and place where you won’t be disturbed or rushed.
  3. Prepare for the meeting. Take notes about what you would like to say so you don’t forget any crucial information. 
  4. Explain that you need an accommodation in order to fulfill your role and explicitly state that you have a medical condition. Legally, you don’t have to provide any detailed medical information, but an employer is entitled to ask for a doctor’s note or other verifiable proof.
  5. Try to make specific requests rather than general statements. For example, if you can’t use a standard-issued computer, research alternative laptops that serve your needs. This will probably accelerate the approval process and helps ensure you get the best solution for you.
  6. At the end of the meeting, define the next steps and decide who will act on them.  Set a timeline for following up to make sure your request is addressed as quickly as possible.

The Fine Print

  • Under the ADA, a company with less than 15 employees isn’t required to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees—but that doesn’t mean they won’t. Many small businesses provide accommodations to their staff. Don’t let this discourage you from applying to career opportunities that will help you advance.
  • Your employer is under no obligation to make accommodations if your condition renders you unable to do your job. If they can demonstrate you don’t have the skills, knowledge, or experience to carry out your responsibilities of your role, they might have a legal argument against your accommodation request. 
  • The ADA states that if an employer can show providing an accommodation would cause “undue hardship,” they could argue they have a right to deny the request.
  • If an employer accommodates your request, you have a right to confidentiality. Your peers may be curious, but you don’t need to explain why you have different equipment or standards. Your employer must keep that information private, unless you give express written permission for them to discuss your disability with employees who aren’t in management or human resources.

Quick Summary

You don’t have to disclose your disability to an employer unless you wish to, but it could make it easier to receive accommodations for your needs. If you want to request accommodations, set up a meeting and work with a manager or human resources to find solutions that allow you to do your best work.


Get more job search tips by working with a career coach today!


 

About the Author

Patti Barnes has spent much of her career working with management systems, first in the creation and implementation of management systems and later as an auditor against international standards. After a sidestep into the economic evaluation of environmental resources, and the psychology of social media, she became a consultant to both private industries and governments. Patti now spends her time between advisory roles, writing about the ways in which professionals can best position themselves for a successful career in today's complex and connected world.