Disclosing a Hidden Disability in the Employment Setting
By Trish Thoburn
Hidden disabilities refer to medical, mental, or physical conditions that may not be apparent from one’s appearance. Examples of hidden or invisible disabilities include autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, mental health issues, or chronic medical conditions.
The most likely reason job candidates or employees choose not to disclose a disability is because they fear it could prevent them from being hired or progressing in their career. They may also want to avoid any potential embarrassment or stigmatization associated with their disability, and to be treated equally in the workplace. They may believe that there is no reason or benefit to disclosing.
In working with clients with hidden disabilities, counselors can support them in considering possible advantages, in addition to the risks of sharing information regarding a disability. The most important reason to disclose is to ask for necessary accommodations to compete fairly in the pre-hiring stage and to be able to perform the essential functions of the job once hired. Disclosing a disability may lessen stressors that can arise if an applicant or employee feels they are being secretive, and it may allow managers and peers to offer support.
In some cases, characteristics of a disability might seem odd or raise concerns, but in the context of a disability, they make more sense. For example, a person with autism might have difficulty with eye contact and therefore, not be successful in a typical job interview. However, if the hiring manager understands this is a characteristic of autism, and making eye contact with others is not essential to performing the job, being open about the disability may be helpful in getting and maintaining employment.
In order to support clients with disabilities, career counselors should be aware of the basic legal protections involving employment for persons with disabilities, which are covered under Title 1 of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under ADA, a covered disability includes a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
To be protected under the ADA, a person must:
- meet the requirements for the job, such as education, employment experience, skills, or licenses
- must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.
Example: A person can perform all the essential functions of a receptionist position but cannot physically retrieve packages from a mailroom as predecessors have done on occasion. This would be considered a non-essential function of the job and the employer should make accommodations.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified person with a disability and requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for otherwise qualified applicants or employees unless it would create an undue hardship for the employer. Undue hardship is dependent on the size of the employer and the expense of the accommodation.
ADA and the Job Search
If covered under ADA, applicants may request reasonable accommodations in applying, interviewing or completing pre-employment screening or testing. An applicant is NOT required to disclose a disability before being hired, unless they are requesting accommodations in the pre-hire process.
Examples of reasonable pre-employment accommodations for hidden disabilities might include:
- Conducting interview in a physically accessible or more accommodating space if needed;
- Increased time or varied format for pre-employment testing if the testing is not intended to measure the skill being accommodated. For example, if fast 10-key skills are a job requirement, these would not be accommodated in pre-employment screening;
- Providing readers or sign language interpreters;
- Altering the format of the interview (one-on-one verses a group interview).
Starting the Job
Once hired, employers may ask medical and disability related questions as long as they ask them of all employees. If a disability is disclosed, they may ask for documentation of the disability.
- Employers are not required to provide accommodations unless they are requested by the employee.
- Once a disability has been disclosed, if an employee requests reasonable accommodations, the employer is required to provide them, but they do not have to be exactly as the employee suggests or requests.
- Requests for accommodations after poor performance review, reprimand or termination will not negate these actions, therefore, it is important for clients to consider disclosing and requesting accommodations BEFORE performance issues arise.
Tips for Disclosure
If a client decides that it is in their best interest to disclose a disability, career counselors can assist by practicing or role-playing how the client will share the information, and who they should disclose to. Encourage clients to be brief and to the point regarding their disability and not to dwell on limitations. In some situations, simply stating the accommodations may be sufficient. Help the client consider what accommodations have been useful in the past and what they might need in the new work setting. Many employers are open to suggestions from the employee as to how best provide the accommodation.
Career counselors do not need to be experts on the ADA but should understand that clients may be protected under the act, and be prepared to help them understand their rights, decide if disclosure is in their best interest, and if so, help them prepare to disclose.
Trish Thoburn, M.Ed., Ed.S. is a human resources professional and career counselor. For the past 30 years, she has worked in corporate settings, higher education, and as a family advocate for persons with disabilities. As a parent of a son with autism, she is deeply interested in helping all people find their life’s work…however known. Trish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org