The View from Someone Else’s Boots: "What are the Advantages of Disclosing One's Disabilities to Employers”

Disclosure Request

The moment has arrived. You are currently applying for an employment position with a new organization and you inevitably reach the part of the job application that asks for self- identification and voluntary disclosure of any disabilities. Before answering the question(s), you instantly pause as your mind imagines the possibilities of how your personal health information may be interpreted by the prospective employer... you wonder, if your condition could somehow subject you to being ostracized and treated differently than any of your future employee counterparts?

You try to anticipate if the proactive disclosure of your personal disability will ultimately subject you to any forms of stereotypes and/or discrimination that could unfortunately paint a picture in someone's mind that you may be unable to adequately perform the required task of the job. Apprehension sets in, as the possibility of divulging your mental health challenge becomes improperly translated and poorly interpreted as you being unstable, socially inept, incompetent, prescription drug dependent, or a potential threat to other staff and customers? And, once answering the questions, can you reasonably expect the employer to become afraid of possible poor customer service and disruptive relationships with other employees, extended absences, added employer liability and too expensive accommodation cost?

You may also seriously pontificate, how your private disclosure regarding your personal health condition will be confidentially maintained. Can you really trust the organization to protect the confidential nature of your hidden condition on a need to know basis?

For many job candidates with a disability, personal disclosure of their personal health condition to an employer is a very intimate, subjective and complex decision that ultimately requires a lot of thought regarding the potential pros and cons.

Are there really any advantages to disclosing your disability to an employer?

In fact, the simple answer is yes.  Many public and private industry employers understand the immense value and advantages of maintaining a competitive and diverse workforce (this includes people with various hidden and physical disabilities.) A substantial number of large, medium and small organizations (of all industries) actively recruit candidates with a variety of different (Schedule A) disability types.

The growing demographic of employees with disabilities within the workforce helps employers to maintain compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), along with other standards associated with Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) regulations.

Many studies illustrate that employees with disabilities are highly coveted individuals and overall, are proven to be very capable, consistent, enthusiastic, tech savvy and high performing employees, that generally do not negatively impact liability, decrease production or inadvertently increase operating cost for certain accommodations (most accommodations are less than $500.)

Employer obligations

A person with a disability always has the right to answer "no" on an application regarding disclosure. However, an employer does have the right to ask the candidate (generally during the application and interview process) if any known health condition(s) may negatively impede him or her from performing certain task required with the job. For instance, a typical application question may ask if a employee candidate's disability or health condition would prohibit the person from lifting packages that would weigh a minimum of 20-pounds as required in the specific job description. 

Also during the interview and on-boarding process, an employer has the right to extend corporate policy notification regarding acceptable employee conduct within the workplace. These employer policies can hold the employee accountable to standards regarding workplace conduct and job performance. In addition, an employer can extend discipline to any employee (regardless of their particular health status) that violates certain corporate policy regarding conduct, or failure to meet certain performance standards.

If the challenges are disability related or influenced by the disability in any way, the employer is obligated to consider and apply a reasonable accommodation to improve the situation (that helps the individual meet the required performance standard.) An employer must make an accommodation available if it would not impose undue hardship on the employer’s business.

Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to:

  • Making existing facilities readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.
  • Job restructuring and modifying work schedules
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment, adjusting examinations, training materials or policies and providing qualified readers or interpreters

The caveat is, the employer must also extend the same opportunities for all other employees with similar concerns. This also includes extending the same discipline (for policy violations) of all others as well.

What intangibles must a potential employment candidate seriously consider before disclosing their disability to an employer?

Before a person divulges their disability status to an employer, the following issues should be considered:

  1. Research the potential employer's EEO and diversity track record on disability related legal and/or class-action lawsuits. In most cases, this is usually public information.
  2. Consider the employers website, employee training efforts, marketing and other forms of altruistic social outreach towards the general public, customers, consumers, and clients with disabilities. This usually gives a clear indication of how disability sensitivity, awareness and diversity is valued within an organization.
  3. Research the company's consumer appeal and customer service ratings, its core values, its principles and review the diversity of its executives, managers and senior staff.
  4. Try to identify other employees with noticeable workplace accommodations.
  5. During the interview process, ask questions about the organization's general attitude regarding disability disclosure rates and mental health conditions.
  6. If the health condition is too personal, determine how stressful it would be to consistently hide your health status?
  7. Consider that proactively divulging your condition or diagnosis may also protect your legal right to any accommodations you may be entitled to for the purpose of getting and/or keeping a job.
  8. Ask how your personal health data and 'need to know' information will be confidentially maintained.
  9. Ask about internal support programs and other employee disability and diversity focus groups within the organization.
  10. Identify the accommodations that you will need in advance prior to applying and accepting the job.

If you do decide to disclose your disability status, immediately inform your supervisor or manager, along with the organization EEO/Affirmative Action officer or someone from the Human Resources (HR) staff with your concerns. Be sure to inform the person you are interviewing with, the confidential nature of your health condition and if you might need an accommodation. If already on the job, please inform the HR staff, if you are experiencing difficulties, and need help deciding how to, how much, and exactly whom to disclose.

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Ed Crenshaw is a US Navy veteran, diversity practitioner, disability subject matter expert and creator of the innovative “Preparing Employers to Reintegrate Combat Exposed Veterans with Disabilities” (P.E.R.C.E.V.D.) diversity training program. He is also the author of the books, “The P.E.R.C.E.V.D. Principles” and “The Employers Guide to Understanding Hidden Conditions Related to Suicide.” As a well-renown professional speaker, Ed is a passionate champion and respected advocate for people with disabilities.