Disclosing a Disability

Many more people with disabilities are choosing to work.  The Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work program has helped with this decision; it’s designed to remove many of the barriers that previously influenced people’s decisions about going to work because of the concerns over losing health care coverage.

If you have a disability or medical condition that is not evident to an employer, you may be worried about disclosing your issue in this competitive job market.  It can be tempting to maintain your privacy and hope that the condition does not affect your performance on the job. 

Some applicants worry that they are not being completely honest with a potential employer if they do not disclose their disability.  Remember that the law is on your side – you’re under no obligation to disclose.  The decision to do so is very personal and will vary by individual, but here are some things to consider as you make the decision.

First, you must decide whether to disclose at all.  If you are a long term and valuable employee who has just been diagnosed with a condition, the decision may not cause much distress.  You probably have already proven your worth to the team, and they may be willing to provide extra support for you as you learn how to cope with your condition. 

It’s usually new or shorter tenured employees who struggle most with whether to disclose to an employer.  If you are unsure, a good place to start is with the company’s HR department.  You can be assured of confidentiality, and if you have a condition that may require emergency treatment (like epilepsy or diabetes) it’s good to have emergency contact information that the company can access.  The HR department can also help you request accommodations if you’re not sure how to start the discussion with your supervisor.

Disclosing feels risky, but waiting until you are experiencing performance issues is almost always a mistake.  If your performance has not been meeting expectations, you’ve lost some of the good will you might call on with your team.  Employers do not have to rescind discipline that occurred before they knew about the disability, nor do they have to lower performance standards as a reasonable accommodation.  Remember, the purpose of an accommodation is to enable a qualified person with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. So, disclose when you first realize you are having difficulties.

If you do disclose your disability, tell only those people who need to know.  Generally, that will be your direct supervisor and no one else. It’s not necessary to inform coworkers and colleagues about your disability or your need for accommodations.  While they may be aware of the accommodations, especially if you are allowed to take extra breaks or you have a flexible starting time, they are not entitled to know why. Your employer is required by the ADA to keep your disability and medical information confidential and to give it to managers and supervisors only on a need-to-know basis. You want to keep the focus on your performance, not your disability, so the less you talk about it, the less other people will.

For additional information on disclosure, see: http://askjan.org/topics/discl.htm

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