Disclosing disabilities is a complex personal decision. There are many factors to consider. You should think carefully about your decision to disclose to employers and think clearly about their reasons for disclosing. If you choose to disclose, you should plan and prepare so that your disclosure is more likely to result in the desired positive outcomes.
Although there are many reasons to disclose, three of the most common reasons are:
- To self-identify to an employer covered under employment equity legislation
- To obtain a needed test or interview accommodation
- To request certain work accommodations
It should be noted that to request work accommodations, you do not have to disclose you have a learning disability; you only has to disclose that due to disability reasons you have the documented need for specific work accommodations.
Most university graduates with disabilities are highly intelligent, hard working, motivated, creative, and productive. Many York graduates with disabilities have achieved high levels of success in a variety of professional, technical, and managerial jobs, with minimal accommodations. Furthermore, employers have reported high levels of satisfaction with their decision to hire York students with disabilities. Research has shown that employers rated York University students with disabilities higher than students without disabilities on a wide range of job performance measures. Moreover, Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist who is co–director of Yale’s Centre for Learning and Attention, said, “Dyslexics are overrepresented in the top ranks of people who are unusually insightful, who bring a new perspective, who think out of the box.” Betsy Morris’ article in the May 2002 Fortune Magazine profiles many high achieving leaders with disabilities who were willing to speak publicly about the strategies that have assisted them in achieving their exemplary success.
Therefore, in an ideal world where employers were educated about the strengths and talents of persons with disabilities, there would be little concern about whether university graduates with disabilities should disclose. Such disclosure could even work to the advantage of a person with disabilities because employers would know about the strengths in this population and might actively want to consider having members of this talented group in their organization.
Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Many people with disabilities still worry about the negative stereotypes that employers might attach to them if they disclose. Although it is illegal for employers to discriminate against people with disabilities, if an employee or potential employee discloses, many employers are still uninformed about what disabilities really are. Moreover, many employers are still unaware of appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities and may be afraid of what it means to hire someone with learning differences. Pat Hatt, a long term advocate for people with disabilities would go as far as to say, “Never disclose unless you absolutely need to and the disclosure will work to your advantage.”
Many people with disabilities are afraid of the stigma attached to disclosing and would rather not disclose than face misunderstanding or underestimation of potential that can result from disclosure. However, not disclosing can also have negative results. The decision not to disclose could result in not getting the accommodations that are needed to obtain or keep a job. Employers must accommodate4 the needs of people with disabilities, according to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canada Human Rights Code, but if an employee chooses not to disclose their accommodation needs, an employer cannot know how to assist. When people with disabilities don’t have the accommodations they need to compete or perform efficiently, they may make more mistakes or may not produce quality work. In addition, they may experience unhealthy levels of stress as they try to complete competitive tasks without the tools and strategies they need to be effective.
It is very important to spend some time thinking about the decision to disclose. Preparation and planning can make the difference between a positive and negative experience. Many factors need to be taken into consideration before the disclosure takes place?
- How serious is the disabilities? If the disabilities is not severe, there may not be as much need to disclose as there might be if the disabilities is very severe.
- Will job accommodations be needed and if so how readily available will these accommodations be? Will special arrangements be needed to obtain the accommodations?
- Is there a way to get the needed accommodations without disclosure? (For example, many offices already have a computer with a spellchecker, so if this is a needed accommodation, disclosure might not be necessary).
- Will the disabilities interfere with being able to complete the job application process (completing the application materials, screening tests, interviewing process)? For example, some jobs have employment tests to pass or on-site assignments or presentations to complete. Will accommodations be needed to succeed in any part of this process?
- Will accommodations be necessary for the initial on-the-job training? For example, will material be needed in alternate format or will other accommodations be needed such as a tape recorder or extra time?
- Will the learning disability affect on-the-job performance? Will accommodations be needed to perform the job duties?
- Will disclosure improve your chances of succeeding at work? If yes, why not disclose?
- How comfortable are you with disclosing?
- Do you have a positive and succinct way of describing your disability and how you compensate? Can you turn your disability into a positive? Employers hire ability, not disability, so a positive way of describing how you work efficiently is best.
- How open is the employer to accommodating the needs of those with special needs?
- Will it be an advantage to getting hired if you disclose? Some employers covered under employment equity policy have special initiatives that make it advantageous for job seekers with disabilities to disclose.
- Does the employer have employment equity policies that are being utilized?
Georgian College produced a short, excellent guide, called QuikTips to help students with disabilities decide whether or not to disclose. It succinctly and clearly stated: “You should consider disclosing your learning disability if:
- You need accommodations in the interview or in job testing
- You need accommodations to do the essential tasks of the job successfully
- You know the company has an employment equity plan and is trying to meet the employment equity goals
You may choose not to disclose in an employment setting if:
- Your learning disability will not affect the impression you give at a job interview
- The job matches your areas of strength and you will not need accommodations
- You can compensate for limitations in doing the job by using coping strategies
Disclosure can be made at any time in the job search process:
- On preliminary job application
- During job interview
- After the interview when offered job
- After start job, but before trouble
- After you run into trouble
There are advantages and disadvantages to disclosing at each of these stages. Ultimately the decision is very individual, so people with disabilities should be informed about the pros and cons of choosing their disclosure timing.
Most people would agree that it is best not to disclose just before you are about to be fired, even though this is a possible timing. Although employers are still required to accommodate you after such disclosure, waiting until after you have made numerous mistakes may create negative work impressions that can be difficult to recover from. Employers may wonder why you haven’t disclosed your needs earlier.
Employers Must Provide Reasonable Accommodations: It is the Law If You Disclose Your Accommodation Needs.
Remember it is the law that employers provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities if accommodations needs are disclosed. The details of the disability don’t have to be disclosed to be accommodated. However, documented proof of disability accommodation needs must be provided if requested by the employer.
The Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canada Human Rights Act both legislate that employers do not discriminate against persons with disabilities and mandate that employers provide reasonable accommodations. Be aware of your legal rights by reading over the legislation and the related guides. Complaints can be filed if discrimination occurs. You can read more about this process by going to the relevant website.
Proceeding with a human rights complaint is an option, but can be time consuming and emotionally draining. Therefore, although it is important to know your legal rights, it is also very useful to develop your negotiation and assertiveness skills to facilitate obtaining accommodations without the need to take legal action.
Most employers hire based on your ability, not your disability. Therefore, it is critical that you know your strengths, be able to market your abilities, focus on your accomplishments, and become fully aware of how to negotiate the accommodations and job modifications that you might need to function efficiently. Disclosure is not always necessary to get your needs met. However, when disclosure is necessary, the way in which you disclose can have a great impact on the outcome. Therefore be sure to practice disclosure statements and improve your general negotiation skills.
York University students in the Disability Services should discuss if, how, and when to disclose with their disabilities advisor. Practicing making positive disclosure statements is also an important part of the CDS Career Mentorship Program, so consider joining this program if you want to explore further the topic of work disclosure. Successful disclosure is an important life skill at school and on the job. Practice will help develop this critical skill.
Whether or not a decision is made to disclose to an employer, you should ensure that you have a thorough understanding of your legal rights, your unique disabilities, and how you accommodate and work efficiently. With this knowledge, you will be in the most powerful position to maximize your career potential and make informed disclosure decisions.
- Keep your disclosure short
- Use plain simple language, not psycho-educational jargon
- Focus on your strengths and abilities first: remember employers hire you for what you can do, not for what you can’t do
- Focus on how you have accommodated to be successful in the past and how the accommodation you now need will assist you in continuing to be successful in the future
- Explain what you do well and what has worked in the past
- Convey your accomplishments
- Create a script and practice making your disclosure
- Assure the employer that your solutions worked with past employers or in school
- Be willing to provide references who could confirm the success of your past accommodation strategies
Coming up with the right script is important for your success. It can be complicated to come up with the right words to communicate your disabilities and discuss your needs. Everyone takes their own unique approach to disclosure. Here are some statements that past York University graduates with disabilities have used to discuss their disabilities.
- Script 1:
“Would you rather hire person A or B? Person A can’t read traditional print, write, tell time, add, subtract, multiply, or divide, and find their way to new destinations?” Person B has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies, has made professional presentations on 4 continents, including a presentation to the United Nations, has taught university courses, edited the manuscripts of university instructors, and is the president of a growing, innovative, assistive technology company? Person A and B are the same person, me. Through the use of assistive technology, I have become more productive than most employees.”This is one of the scripts of Lisa Allen, a York University graduate with disabilities, who created her own assistive technology company, Get Axxess (GET), an innovative company for people who learn differently to access information using advanced software and hardware technology. She now works as an Assistive Technology Specialist.This script focuses on Lisa’s accomplishments. It illustrates that despite her severe disabilities, she has achieved many great successes. It opens the door for the employer to ask more questions about how Lisa has succeeded and focuses the listener’s attention on accomplishments rather than failures. Lisa has always been a creative problem solver. If she can’t solve problems through solution A, she tries B, then C, then D, etc. Most people can only see 1 or 2 solutions and then they give up. Lisa perseveres.
- Script 2:
“I am known for my ability to distill complex technical manuals down to their basic components so that the average consumer can obtain a basic understanding of the complex products. It is due to my difficulties reading that I create these manuals that have become useful not only for myself and my customers, but for many salesmen who have to learn to market these complex products.”This is one of the scripts of Arthur Pidgeon, another York University graduate with disabilities who became President of his own multi-franchised corporation. This script focuses on how the learning disability became strength, without emphasizing the disability.
- Script 3:
“I have strong oral communications skills and have utilized these skills to contribute timely, innovative solutions to current problems being faced. By conducting focus interviews rather than concentrating on reading, I have been told that my research is more useful to the current questions being asked. Some of my past colleagues have relied on their more highly developed reading skills and have tended to respond to current tasks by reading outdated reports to provide recommendations. Due to my difficulties reading, I have relied more on active interviewing research strategies to solve problems. This has worked well.”This is a script created by Pat Hatt, a mentor in the York University Career Mentorship Program and disabilities advocate. Although she has an oral reading level of grade 3, she found strategies to complete a Masters Degree in Education and publish a number of important books and reports on learning disabilities. As a result of her successful accommodation strategies, her research results have been well respected for being more up-to-date, relevant, and applicable. Therefore, her ideas have been sought by many important advisory committees such as the Toronto Training Board, the Provincial Advisory Committee on Disabilities Issues for the Ontario Government, George Brown College, York University Employment Equity Committee, and many others.The above script focuses on her contributions and strengths. Over the years, she has recognized that she should follow techniques at work and at school that build on her strengths, rather than pretend that she learns like everyone else and try to copy techniques of others who learn more by reading and writing.
The on-line booklet, Secret for Success contains profiles of highly successful York University graduates with disabilities. Each graduate profiled shared their personal view on disclosure. Moreover, the overall topic of disclosure is more generally addressed.
Throughout the process of “telling their story,” the issue of disclosing learning disabilities to an employer was a recurrent theme.
People with disabilities are often reluctant to disclose. They are concerned that disclosure may limit job prospects or advancement opportunities due to misconceptions, stereotypes, or generalizations. Job seekers with disabilities are also concerned that they may be offered “a token position” to fill employment equity targets and they would rather be hired for their abilities, not their disabilities.
There are persons with disabilities who do not need to disclose because they have implemented personal strategies and accommodations to compensate for their idiosyncratic learning styles. However, there are others who have no choice but to disclose in order to pass employment entrance tests, complete job advancement courses, or complete assigned work within narrowly established parameters. Many would be able to perform more efficiently on the job if they were able to arrange for some simple accommodations such as a quieter workspace, access to a computer, or instructions in alternative formats.
Many employers, committed to employment equity, encourage disclosure because they recognize the importance of developing the potential of all workers. Roy Sampson, Manager of Recruitment and Employment Equity for the Royal Bank, expressed the sentiments of many organizations,
“The relationship between an employer and a candidate for employment must be one of trust and understanding. Self disclosure of one’s disability adds value to that relationship by providing the opportunity, through open discussion, to determine how the individual can reach their full potential in the work environment.”
Ultimately, the choice to disclose rests with the individual with disabilities who must evaluate each situation based on thorough research of diverse factors that include personal needs, job description, possible accommodations required during or after the selection process, and the organization’s sensitization to disability issues.
Partners in equity must cooperate to ensure that workers with disabilities can disclose in a succinct, positive manner and that they can do so without shame or fear of lost opportunity. Ultimately, both employers and employees benefit from discussing strategies that allow the achievement of maximum productivity.