Should You Disclose Your Disability During a Job Search?

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One in five Americans has a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If you are part of this sizable group — whether your disability is a visible one or a hidden, invisible one — applying and interviewing for a job has an extra layer of complexity. You may wonder if you are required to share information about your disability with potential employers. And, requirements aside, is it beneficial or detrimental to share these details?

These are not simple questions to answer nor ones with a single correct answer. If you have arthritis, cerebral palsy, depression, or any other mental or physical disability, here are some things to consider during your job search.

What Does the Law Say?

First, let's cover what the legalities around employment for people with disabilities.The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. The ADA does two important things, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). First, the law makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified job applicants or employees with either mental or physical disabilities. And, the ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to accommodate employees or candidates with disabilities.

Sounds clear-cut, right? But note the phrases "qualified applicants" and "reasonable accommodations," which add some ambiguity. (Get more information on the ADA, including a definition of reasonable accommodations and details on what questions employers can — and can't — ask.)

Bottom line: Legally, the ADA does not require candidates to disclose a disability to employers or potential employers. If you do not disclose, however, employers correspondingly will not have to make accommodations.

4 Considerations to Keep in Mind

It's only reasonable that people with disabilities — despite these legal protections — may hesitate to share their disabilities. When faced with two qualified candidates, will employers opt to interview or hire the one without disabilities because it's just easier? And will a conversation about a disability overshadow talking about qualifications and job responsibilities?

These are valid concerns. And, given the range of jobs and disabilities, it's impossible to nail down one right answer to the question about whether or not to disclose a disability during the application process. Here, though, are some things to mull over as you make your decision:

1. Will you need accommodations? If you will need a wheelchair-friendly desk, a screen reader, flexible schedule, or any changes to the office layout or supplies, it may make sense to share these with potential employers during the application process. Being specific can be helpful. After all, you may very well know more than employers about what's required and the costs involved. Before putting in an application, review the job description carefully to make sure you will be able to do the core responsibilities and to get a sense of any specific accommodations that will help you do your job.


2. Will not disclosing make the application process unexpectedly challenging? In an essay for The Guardian, James Gower points out that not being upfront about his disability makes answering common interview questions about teamwork and challenges impossible. If failing to share information about a disability will make answering interview questions harder, that may be a good sign that disclosing early on is the right path for you. (Keep in mind that a disability can serve as an explanation for a gap in work history, too.)

3. Does the employer have a disability-friendly stance? As always, researching a company can be helpful. In this case, you'll want to check to see if the company has a record of supporting employees with disabilities — or not. Some signs of a disability-friendly company: photos and language on the website that welcome or acknowledge people with disabilities and connections with disability groups. A quick online search can also be illuminating.  

4. When to Disclose. If you do feel its best to disclose details about your disability, you may be wondering what the best timing is. Again, there's no one right answer — but here are some things to keep in mind.

Pre-interview: If you have a visible disability, sharing the details pre-interview may be helpful. That's especially true if you'd prefer to keep the focus of the interview on your qualifications and work experience. You can quickly and simply set expectations (e.g., "I use a wheelchair, so it would be helpful to meet in a room with a door that's wide enough to accommodate my chair.") and put interviewers at ease.

During the interview: Employers are often eager for adaptive, flexible employees. In some ways, your strategies for living in a world that isn't necessarily tailored to meet your needs can highlight these qualities. Plus, if you think your interviewers are wondering about your disability — and how they'll have to adjust responsibilities or office layout — it can be helpful to address those concerns, which interviewers cannot legally bring up themselves.

After the interview: If you landed a job, congratulations! Now, you may be wondering if you should bring up your disability. If there are adaptations you'll need, and your work-life will be easier if employers are aware, this is a good time to bring it up. If you need a daily break to administer medication, for instance, giving a heads-up is more helpful than surprising your new employer on your first day.