How and When to Disclose a Disability to an Employer

Need workplace accommodations? Use this advice to start the discussion.

How and When to Disclose a Disability to an Employer

Get the workplace accommodations you need.

As a person with a disability, you face a unique set of challenges in the workforce, and it begins with the job search itself. Wondering how and when to disclose a disability to an employer? Or if you should disclose it at all? Good questions.

When it comes to talking about disabilities in the workplace, the best approach depends largely on four things:

  • your particular disability
  • your job
  • your supervisor
  • your personality

Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute—an organization that works to advance the civic, economic, and social participation of people with disabilities—at Syracuse University, says such discussions are tricky because how and when you disclose a disability at work can have significant career repercussions. This is particularly true if the disability is hidden, such as a mental illness, or has no visible physical symptoms.

So what are some ways to know if, how, and when to disclose a disability to an employer? We'll explore those questions and offer tips to help you conduct the conversation so you get the accommodations you need.

Should You Disclose Your Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) permits you to disclose your disability at any time. To be protected by the ADA, your impairment must be substantial as opposed to minor. For example, that means your disability must restrict or significantly limit your:

  • hearing
  • seeing
  • speaking
  • walking
  • breathing
  • ability to perform manual tasks
  • ability to care for yourself
  • learning
  • working

"Every decision [to reveal or not to reveal your disability] has implications for the employee and the employer," Blanck explains. "If you tell and then suffer subtle discrimination, that's bad. But it's also bad if you don't tell and spend every workday feeling pressured and frustrated." And your employer may use nondisclosure against you if you later try to argue you've been discriminated against or unfairly terminated.

Blanck advises employees to undergo an independent medical evaluation before disclosure. If you use your employer's doctor, study the company's confidentiality policy.

"(The doctor's) job is to maintain a safe and appropriate workplace," he says. "If you've got a communicable disease or a psychological issue, the company physician may be forced to disclose your condition, whether you want to or not."

Other things to consider before deciding if you should disclose your disability:

  • What's your job status? A longtime, highly valued employee may have different reasons to disclose—or not—than a new hire.
  • Who should you tell? Your relationship with your immediate supervisor may determine who you target for initial disclosure.
  • Is disclosure necessary to continuing in your job or maintaining a safe workplace? Will you request an accommodation? What kind?

"Good-faith disclosure should be the norm," Blanck says. "But the world is not always a clean place. Think disclosure through very carefully." Top executives who fear losing their jobs should seek outside counsel first.

How and When to Disclose Your Disability to an Employer

Debating when to tell your employer? It depends. Are you a job seeker, or are you already employed? If the latter, how long have you been working at your company? The fact of the matter is that every situation is different—there's no one-size-fits-all answer here.

Obviously, the stakes are higher for new employees. As a new hire, you of course want to make a good first impression, and that includes seeking accommodation in order to do your job well. It's your right to ask for an accommodation, and it's also OK not to disclose in an interview.

However, "if you don't disclose in an interview, there may be consequences," Blanck says. "It may be too late later on. If you're interviewing for work in a nuclear power plant and you don't disclose alcoholism, you may subject yourself to termination."

Blanck says disclosure should be done "very strategically." For example, if you're a young, high-powered employee with a slowly progressing disease, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or HIV/AIDS, you may want to wait.

"If I was young and just diagnosed with a disease like MS, I'm not sure I'd tell my employer right away," Blanck says. "I would probably want to make my own way and not be put into a 'disability box.' Still, I realize that disclosure is a very individual decision."

In terms of how to go about disclosing your disability, it doesn't necessarily start with a verbal conversation. Writing out disclosure can prevent misunderstandings. But consider your words carefully.

"Do not put something in writing that could be prejudicial," Blanck stresses. "Don't say, 'I really can't do this job anymore.' People under pressure may be vulnerable and say things that will hurt them later on. Instead, say, 'I may request an accommodation that will enable me to perform at my current excellent level.'"

In addition, you must determine how much to reveal and what you need. Usually, a supervisor needs enough information to provide reasonable accommodations. A typical request may be: "I have a neuromotor disease. The functioning in my hands is decreasing. I can no longer answer the phone, so I need a headset."

After initial disclosure, continue to communicate with your employer. Also, keep your expectations of accommodations in check, based on how reasonable they are under the law.

Above all, your individual needs and comfort should drive your disclosure decisions. If your employer (or potential employer) is making the situation more difficult than it needs to be, there are other companies out there that would give you the tools you need to do your job to the best of your abilities.

Find an Employer That Works With You

Learning how and when to disclose a disability to an employer is tricky, and as you can see, there's no universal answer that applies to everyone. But one thing is certain: You don't need to stay at a job that's making it difficult for you to succeed. Need help finding a good company to work for? Create a free profile on Monster to get started. We can send you custom job alerts and job search tips to help connect you with career opportunities that would be a great fit.

This article is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice. Always seek the professional advice of an attorney regarding any legal questions you may have.