How to disclose a disability to your employer
I wrote the following post with lots of help from Veronica Crawford, a Board Certified Senior Disability Analyst at the Life Development Institute in Glendale, AZ. Veronica’s presentation at the LDA International Conference earlier this year, titled “The Discrimination Factor – I Just Want to Keep My Job – Helping the Young Adult,” contained information that any job-seeker or employee with a disability needs to know.
When I recently emailed Veronica some questions regarding disability disclosure, she went above and beyond in supplying the answers. She also previewed this post to make sure the information in it is correct. I’m very grateful for the time and care Veronica invested in helping me get her message out. Both of us hope that atypical young adults who are looking for employment or who already have a job will use this information to thrive in the workplace.
NOTE: Although the information presented below pertains to any hidden disability – a learning disability, ADHD, Aspergers or autism spectrum, etc. – for the sake of brevity, we’ll refer to it as an LD (learning disability).
Here is the crux of the matter: Under the ADAAA (Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, 2008) a worker with LD can avoid discrimination and receive reasonable accommodations in the workplace, until the day of termination at that job, IF the worker has disclosed that he or she has an LD.
ADAAA only applies to companies with 15 or more employees. Also, the accommodations put in place must not cause undue hardship on the employer.
OK, so picture this: your boss pulls you aside and says your employment is being terminated due to poor performance. You say, “Wait – I have an LD!”
Can that outburst prevent you from being let go? Can you request accommodations at this time?
Maybe – but under the law, the employer can legally fire you. To be protected under ADAAA, you need to disclose your disability before the employer announces your services are no longer required.
As you can see from the example above, it helps to know more about when, what, and how to disclose to an employer. It also helps to know where to get help!
When to Disclose
Veronica says it is usually better NOT to disclose on the application. Exceptions would be if you need accommodations to fill out the application and/or to take a test that is part of the applicant screening process.
Generally, it’s also better NOT to disclose your LD before or during an interview, unless your disorder makes it difficult for you to answer the interview questions (for instance, if you have an auditory processing language disorder.)
The best time to disclose is probably after the job offer is made. However, there may be reasons to wait until you’ve been on the job for a short time and have a feel for the actual demands.
Veronica suggests that when you first receive the job offer, tell the employer you want to make sure you fully understand the nature and expectations of the job, and request a copy of the job description to study. If you read the description and conclude you may be unduly challenged by some of the tasks involved, you can come back to the employer and make your disclosure, including alternatives for possible accommodations.
If, having read the job description, you’re unsure about needing accommodations, you can start the job without disclosing and see how it goes. Be honest with yourself, and notice if you are struggling with things like understanding instructions or taking too long to complete a task, especially in comparison to other trainees. Make a point to regularly ask your supervisor, “How am I doing?” If he or she says that you don’t seem to be catching on, it is time to disclose.
I asked Veronica whether employers sometimes feel tricked if disclosure doesn’t come before the job offer. Here are some edited excerpts from her answer:
I will be honest; some do. Don’t worry if they feel tricked. Sometimes people with hidden disabilities don’t know if they need accommodations on a job until they try it out. A lot depends on how you deliver the message. Once you are certain you need to disclose, don’t hold back. It will build trust with your employer if you are upfront about needing help.
What to Disclose
Your disclosure needs to contain two things: the DSM 5 listing of your diagnosis, and suggestions for accommodations on the job. If you have two or more diagnoses, only share the diagnoses that impact your job performance.
The disclosure should be in writing from your diagnostician – that is, any of the following professionals who’ve been treating you: a licensed professional counselor, social worker, clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, psychiatrist, or MD.
Some employers have a form your diagnostician can fill out. If a form isn’t available, tell your diagnostician what you need and show him/her the job description. Make sure you review and approve what the diagnostician has written before the disclosure goes back to your employer.
Here are some excerpted, paraphrased tips from Veronica on this subject:
The diagnostician has to be the one to provide the diagnosis, as required by ADAAA. However, some diagnosticians have never written disclosures before and don’t know how to recommend job-related accommodations. If this is the case, you can get help for suggesting appropriate accommodations from other specialists, such as a professional job coach, vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor, rehabilitation counselor, or disability analyst.
How to Disclose
Before having “the disclosure talk” with your employer, it’s helpful to practice what you’re going to say. Veronica emphasizes the need to be honest and knowledgeable as you advocate for yourself. A passive, embarrassed, confused approach will probably not get you great results.
A good first step in disclosing your LD to your employer is to talk about it with expertise, using a strength-based model. That is, tell your employer what you’ve achieved in life despite having a disability. It helps to point out the strengths (such as visualization, outside-the-box thinking, empathy, etc.) that often go along with LD. Also mention how your disability affects you and how you manage it.
Next, review the possible accommodations with the employer. For example, suppose an accommodation you used in school, such as a product from Text Help or Kurzweil, would be appropriate in your current position. Let your employer know what a positive difference it made to you in school, and the improvement it will bring to your performance now. Since cost may be a factor for the employer in providing an accommodation, have an idea of the relative expense of each alternative.
Present this information in an upbeat manner and underscore that the accommodation will make you a more efficient employee. Express your willingness to work with the employer on alternative accommodations, and thank them for their openness to finding the best solution.
Where to Get Help
After reading all this, you may be doubtful that you could ever pull off a successful disclosure, or that you could ever remain successfully employed! Fortunately,Veronica has a lot of suggestions on where to get help.
One great resource is the Job Accommodation Network, or JAN. Their website includes information for individuals like you, for employers, and for others such as medical, vocational, and legal professionals. You can call JAN if that is better for you than navigating the website. If your employer feels they need help in understanding how to handle your situation, you can suggest that they contact JAN by phone or through the website.
Veronica also suggests that you join adult LD groups such as:
or other local advocacy groups.
You can also form groups with other workers or job-seekers on Facebook or on MeetUp sites.
- See if there is an ADAAA workshop in your area. Ask questions about disclosure, requesting accommodations, and how to help an employer understand an LD.
- Find a disability-friendly job coach or life coach who specializes in this area.
- Find another person with LD who has been successful in employment and ask if they will mentor you.
Isn’t that all incredibly helpful advice??
To sum up the Big Idea: Know how to advocate for yourself as an adult with LD. Seek out the help you need in getting the accommodations you need to be successful.
One final thought from Ms. Crawford: “We are losing ground in the LD community and we need people to start becoming the masters of their specific disabilities.”
(By the way,Veronica is the author of “Embracing the Monster: Overcoming the Challenges of Hidden Disabilities.” The book is based on her own experiences. I’ve not read it yet, but plan to soon. Check out the top-notch reviews on Amazon!)