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Disclosure of disability: the pros and cons

Brianne Turk

We talk reasons for and against disclosing disability to an employer, and get you up to speed on your rights.

It’s the question on everyone’s mind: should I disclose my disability to my employer? Disclosing disability is a deeply personal decision, one that is influenced by your personal values, workplace situation and the foreseeable consequences of such a disclosure. The decision that feels right to you may feel wrong to someone else – there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

If your disability is going to affect your performance in a role, then your pathway forward is clear – you are legally obligated to disclose your disability to your employer. In this case, and in any case where you choose to share such information, it’s important to understand that employers should never ask specific details about your disability or how you acquired it. These types of questions are inappropriate. The only questions that should be asked, include how you will perform the inherent requirements of a role and whether you will need any workplace adjustments to carry it out. All information shared beyond this, is completely up to you.

If you don’t fall into this category, or in other words, if you feel that your work won’t be impacted by your disability, then the decision to share information rests solely in your hands.

There’s a lot of discussion in this space about the use of the word disclosure. Many people feel that the term implies secrecy, as if the individual is divulging information that should be – or has been – kept hidden. The concern is that this language perpetuates a stereotype of disability being something that should be kept hidden or separate, rather than something that simply is. Those following this thought prefer neutral phrases such as choosing to share information about disability, which is how we will address the topic from here on.

Regardless of the language used, it’s hardly surprising that most employers prefer individuals to share information about their disability with them, and to do so as early as possible. There are a number of reasons why this might be beneficial.

Pros

1. You set reasonable expectations about how you’ll carry out a role

Employers have preconceived ideas about how a role should be carried out, together with unconscious expectations of typical workplace behaviour. In sharing information about your disability, you can set reasonable expectations about how you’ll behave and carry out the duties of the role. This minimises assumptions, decreases the likelihood of confusion or disappointment and allows for more positive interactions to follow.

People also tend to draw incorrect conclusions about the capabilities of people with disability. This is your opportunity to educate and transform perceptions.

2. You can ask for the adjustments you require

To find employment that meets your needs, it’s important to know any barriers you face and adjustments you require. Workplace adjustments directly impact work productivity, but you can’t request these if you’re not upfront about the impact of your disability. Having this conversation allows you to formulate specific ways that you and your employer can collaborate so that you can successfully do your job.

3. You can come in armed with solutions

Being transparent about your needs allows you to arrive with solutions: technology that helps you work efficiently, a list of support services that the organisation can turn to and ideas about effective work spaces. While it’s not your job to make the workplace inclusive, coming in armed with solutions demonstrates real resourcefulness.

4. You present as honest, self-aware, proactive and resourceful

Speaking of resourcefulness, employers want to see that you are confident in your ability to handle the role, and capable of asserting and managing your needs. These are skills that are favourable in any work situation. The strength, honesty and respect you display in having these conversations demonstrates a maturity and trustworthiness that is enticing to employers.

5. You foster a supportive environment

If given the opportunity, most managers and colleagues actually want to get to know you – the real you – and support you in whatever way is appropriate. You can liken this to assisting a colleague who has English as a second language or respecting a client’s kosher beliefs when you meet up over lunch. The point is, everyone requires support in different ways. When you allow people to show up for you, you have a much richer experience.

6. You call out the elephant in the room

There’s a fair chance that your disability is a non-issue when it comes to your suitability for a role, yet for those of you who experience visible disability (disability that others notice without being informed) sometimes disability becomes THE issue. By addressing this directly, you can refocus the conversation on the more important points of the conversation, like what a rockstar you’ll be for the position.

7. You get to be you – no apologies, no judgements

Throughout your employment you might do a few things that are a little unexpected: sit close to a screen, talk loudly, fall down steps, refuse to drive, have a panic attack when your workstation gets moved to a new room. By sharing information about your disability, you can interact with others and your environment in a way that is most helpful to you, while being understood and respected by others.

8. You get to own your diversity

Businesses are pouring a great deal of of time and money into making their workplaces inclusive. They want to attract the best talent and from there work with each individual in a way that best allows them to succeed. They actively recruit from all backgrounds and often have specific diversity and inclusion targets to meet. If your very existence has been so thoroughly planned for, why not make it known?

Cons

With all of this in mind, there are a number of reasons why some individuals prefer not to share information about their disability with their employer. These reasons are equally valid.

1. Your disability doesn’t impact your work

If your disability has no bearing on the productivity of your work, you may feel it’s unnecessary to address it. In this case, it’s no different to sharing that you own a cat. Regardless of whether others notice your disability, you’re only obligated to confirm this if it impacts your work. Additionally, one of the main reasons people inform employers is to ensure that they can receive workplace adjustments. If you don’t need adjustments – or can manage these on your own – you might prefer to keep this information private.

2. It’s no one’s business

Your disability is your business. Sharing this information with anyone, let alone complete strangers on a recruitment panel, is personal. Unless you’re obligated to inform your employer, only share what you are comfortable sharing. Perhaps you don’t even identify as someone with disability!

3. You don’t want to be treated differently

When you talk to others about your abilities it can go a number of ways: they can become over supportive and make you uncomfortable, they can underestimate your capacity and patronise you, or they can treat you with the respect and autonomy you deserve. Unfortunately you don’t always know which way it’s going to go. Some people just don’t want to be treated differently –  positively or negatively. This is your right.

4. You might lose the job

There are laws and policies to protect against this very issue, however we wouldn’t be providing sound advice if we didn’t address this possibility. A lot of people are fearful that sharing information about their disability will ultimately cost them their job – that their CV will be thrown in the bin or they’ll automatically flunk their interview. Despite this being unlawful, this is a possibility. It is likely the number one reason why people choose not to inform their employers of disability.

To combat this, make sure are informed about your disability rights in the workplace and how to spot inclusive employers. This will help you to search for organisations which are best equipped to support your needs, and give you the confidence to identify unacceptable behaviour. Importantly, if you feel that you’re being discriminated against, we urge you to raise this directly with the employer or contact a local advocacy group. Calling out discrimination helps to create a more inclusive industry in the future.

When to disclose

If you know your disability will impact your work, you’re legally bound to share this information during the recruitment process. Similarly, if you don’t disclose initially but your disability changes and starts to affect your work, it must be communicated at that time.

If this isn’t the case, the timing is up to you. Perhaps you’d like to get to know your manager or suss out your colleagues’ receptiveness to diversity before discussing the matter. Some employees share their disability when they want to introduce a workplace adjustment and others address it right from the application stage. Due to fear of discrimination, many employees only inform their employers once they’ve settled in to a position.  

Regardless of when the conversation occurs, remember that your employer only has the right to ask you about how you will perform the role and what adjustments you may need. You never have to provide personal details.As you raise this conversation you might find that you’re a little apprehensive. This is completely normal. Depending on experience, your employer or manager might feel nervous too. Take your time, know your rights, and confidently assert your needs.

For more information on disability in the workplace, check out our article about employment support for people with disability.