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Telling an employer about your disability is like a game of chess. It involves strategy, skillful risk and knowledge that your decision can’t be reversed.


There is a common and not unfounded fear that revealing a disability may lead to not being selected for a position or promotion, or result in differential treatment in the workplace, which makes the disclosure choice a difficult one.


A new report takes a deeper look into the disclosure challenges people with disabilities face with each job opportunity. Cornell University and the American Association of People with Disabilities surveyed 780 people about their motivations — and barriers — to sharing their disability at work.


The most important reason a job candidate reveals his or her disability is to get an accommodation: 68% of people with disabilities say the need for a reasonable accommodation — such as assistive technology or a special work arrangement — to help them perform the job at hand is what drives their decision.


Another strong reason (63%) to disclose is to gain a supportive relationship with a boss that’s free of dishonesty (which many respondents say leads to stress.)


Other factors at play are company-specific. More than half of the respondents with disabilities say that knowing they’re at a disability-friendly workplace or that the employer is actively recruiting people with disabilities weighs heavily on their choice.


For employers that are federal contractors, understanding these factors is important; it benefits you to create an environment where a person feels comfortable disclosing. Says one respondent: “I would only disclose if there was clear evidence of being supportive of the disabled across the board at all levels.”

Top Reasons for Disclosing


Need for accommodation


Supportive supervisor relationship


Disability friendly workplace



Active disability recruiting


Knowing of other successes


Disability in diversity statement



Belief in new opportunities


Recruitment materials invite disabled


Disability inclusiveness message



Disabled employee as recruiter



Existence of affinity group

















 Source: Emerging Employment Issues for People with Disabilities, Cornell University and AAPD, December 2011

But some job candidates with disabilities say disclosure is never worth the gamble.  Nearly three quarters of the respondents with disabilities viewed the risks of being fired or not hired as the key reason they might choose to keep their lips zipped.


Overall, people with disabilities fear the idea that an employer may focus on their disability, not ability, during the interview, as well as concerns that they might be passed up for other opportunities within the company and the risk of losing health care benefits.


One respondent says that “once you disclose it can affect your long-term promotions. The employer will always be aware of this no matter how hard you work.”


The report showed differences between disability groups, too. About half of respondents with apparent disabilities —such as a person using a wheelchair —say they disclosed during the recruitment process, while those with a non-apparent disability, such as a mental illness, disclosed less frequently during this time (42%) and more often after they were hired, an option not available to those with apparent disabilities.


Disclosure can also happens inadvertently, or without permission, which is worrisome to many job seekers with disabilities, the report says. For example, a person requesting flexible work arrangement may continue to get denied until they finally resort to spilling the beans about their disability.


Applicant screening, like credit and background checks, also hurt chances for a job seeker with a disability. Around one-third of respondents say screening causes interviewers to nix them from the candidate pool, because they are more likely than non-disabled candidates to have poor or no credit due to higher medical costs, low incomes, and long periods of unemployment. A credit check also reveals other sources of income such as Social Security Disability Insurance.


In some ways, it seems unfair that job seekers with disabilities have to play this game each time they’re looking for work.  But as you become more experienced with each situation, learning the disclosure ropes will get easier, especially if you’re at a company that values diversity and the unique abilities you bring to the table.


Job seekers should evaluate the risks and rewards of disclosing in the workplace. If you’re not sure if disclosure will help you, hold off until you can gather evidence that you’ll get the support you need once you do. And here’s a tip: try your job search the Think Beyond the Label jobs board, which prioritizes results by companies that are actively seeking to hire people with disabilities.





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About the Author

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Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."

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