Disability Disclosure Done Right

Once you've made the decision to disclose, you must give careful thought to the way that you present the information, including a request for reasonable accommodation, if needed.

Components of an effective disclosure statement

According to The 411 on Disability Disclosure guide published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), your disclosure statement should include:

Disability Disclosure Done Right
  • General information about your disability.
  • Why you've chosen to disclose your disability, including its potential impact on your job performance.
  • The types of accommodations that have worked for you in the past (if applicable).
  • The types of accommodations (if any) that you anticipate needing with respect to your current job or the one for which you are applying.
  • How your disability and other life experiences can positively affect work performance.

As the key is to project an image of confidence and capability, you'll also want to remind the employer of the strengths and skills you bring to the position.

Describing your disability

It's usually best not to explain your disability in an overly clinical or in-depth way. The employer only needs to know that you have a disability; it's your choice how general or specific you want to be. Boston University's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation outlines these options and examples in their Disclosing Your Disability to an Employer tip sheet:

  • You can use general terms: disability, medical condition, illness.
  • You can be more specific but still vague: a biological disorder, a neurological problem, a brain disorder, difficulty with stress.
  • Or you can provide the exact diagnosis: schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, major depression.

Avoid using terms such as "chronic condition" and "permanently debilitating," as the employer will likely find these descriptions distressing.

Be brief and matter-of-fact when describing your disability. Don't present your disability as a weakness or apologize for it. Focus instead on any effect it may have on your performance of essential job functions.

In the case of disabilities with unpredictable symptoms, such as schizophrenia or epilepsy, also consider describing behaviors that you may exhibit, and any steps that the employer should take in response.

Script and practice what you're going to say.

Carefully plan how you're going to disclose your disability. For example: "I have a medical condition that sometimes interferes with my ability to ___________. In a previous position, I found that ____________ helped to minimize my problems in this area. I would like to discuss implementing a similar workplace accommodation here. I am confident that my experience, skills, and enthusiasm will enable me to perform the position of ________ successfully. I look forward to proving myself as a valuable member of your work team."

Develop your "script," then ask a trusted family member, friend, or job coach to review it and provide feedback.

Rehearse the disclosure discussion as many times as necessary for you to feel comfortable. You can use a mirror, or ask someone to observe or role-play with you. Pay attention not only to your words, but your body language as well.

Additional points to keep in mind

Here are some other things to remember when planning and carrying out your disability disclosure:

  • Always present yourself as a qualified employee who just happens to have a disability. The more you dwell on the impairment itself, the more important your disability will become in the employer's mind – causing him to focus more on potential problems than actual performance.

  • Disclose to the appropriate person. In most cases, this will be your direct supervisor. However, some larger organizations may have a designated Human Resources, Affirmative Action, or Diversity Officer to handle disability-related issues. Familiarize yourself with your employer's policies and procedures as they relate to disability disclosure and/or reasonable accommodation requests.

  • Approach the discussion of your disability in a positive way. If you assume an unfavorable reaction, YOU will likely come across as negative and defensive! Additionally, a confident and upbeat attitude on your part will help put the employer at ease. There is no benefit to having an employer who is uncomfortable with your disability.

  • Focus on what you CAN do rather than what you can’t. For example, "I can perform data entry tasks for up two hours without a break" makes a better impression than "I can’t perform data entry tasks for more than two hours without a break."

  • Anticipate the employer’s reaction. Be ready to answer likely questions, address any stated or unstated concerns, and reassure him that you are a committed and competent worker.

  • Play it straight. Don't commit to job tasks that are beyond your capabilities, even with an accommodation. Everyone has certain activities that they simply don't do well, and you're no different. It's better to acknowledge your limitations (disability-related or otherwise), and perhaps express a desire to improve that skill area if possible.

  • Help the employer help you. Sometimes employers are hesitant to address performance problems with employees who have disabilities. Explain that you want to do the best job possible, and that you welcome constructive feedback. Be specific about the best way to approach you with any concerns.

Choosing the Right Time to Disclose

Check out When Should You Disclose Your Disability to an Employer? Six Options to Consider for useful tips.

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