Pros and cons of disclosing a disability to employers

Should You Disclose a Learning Disability to a Potential Employer?, woman talking to her boss

At a glance

  • People often worry that an employer will treat them unfairly because of a disability.

  • There are laws that protect people with disabilities from job discrimination. The government has also created financial incentives for hiring people with disabilities.

  • Telling the employer about a disability can make it easier to get accommodations that can help people succeed in the workplace.

Starting a new job can make teens and young adults feel excited, independent, and maybe a little nervous. They’re expected to learn new skills and routines, interact with new people, and make decisions. One of the biggest decisions is whether to tell their employer about any learning and thinking differences.

In school, an or a spells out disabilities as well as the the school provides. An IEP may even include goals about speaking up and telling people what kind of help they need to succeed.

But jobs don’t come with IEPs. And few supervisors have experience with learning and thinking differences.

Deciding whether to tell an employer about a disability is an important next step toward adulthood. Here are some pros and cons to disclosing a disability.

Potential upsides of telling the employer

Here are some of the pros of disclosing a disability to the employer:

Accommodations in the workplace: The (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act require employers to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace. These and other laws also protect against job discrimination. But the employee has to tell the employer about the disability and sometimes provide documentation in order to benefit from these laws. Usually, the human resources officer is a good place to start this conversation.

Financial incentives for the employer: Employers are eligible for tax breaks and sometimes subsidies if they hire people with disabilities. Research also shows that people with disabilities perform well and are less likely to job hop. An applicant may want to consider disclosing a disability to the hiring manager as well as to the human resources manager.

Job coaching: When people disclose a disability, the employer can judge their job performance fairly and provide more support if needed. For example, let’s say someone is struggling and is in danger of being let go. The employer may be open to the employee bringing in a job coach. A coach can provide on-site support and other resources that can help the employee succeed in the workplace.

Potential downsides of telling the employer

Here are some common concerns and ways to address them:

Myths about learning and thinking differences: An employee may worry that the employer believes some common myths about learning and thinking differences. For example, people may worry that the boss will confuse their challenges with intellectual disabilities. (These used to be called “mental retardation.”) When disclosing a disability, it’s a good idea to mention past successes and strategies that have worked in school and other places. Employees may also want to bring up some common misunderstandings or consider giving the employer a handout on myths and facts about learning and thinking differences.

Confidentiality issues: People may worry that if they disclose a disability to their employer, word will get out and all of their co-workers will know about it. Human resources officers know that information about a worker’s disabilities must remain private and that employers can get in trouble for breaking that rule. Unless the employee shares the information with co-workers, it’s unlikely that they’ll hear about it.

Concerns about being given less responsibility: Employees may worry that they won’t be trusted to take on important projects if they tell their boss about a disability. They may also be concerned that disclosing a disability could lead to being passed over for a promotion or a raise. Anti-discrimination laws are designed to prevent employers from doing these kinds of things, but people may still have concerns.

Next steps

Remember that a good work ethic is what matters most. Employees who want to adapt without telling their employer can look for ways to create their own informal accommodations.

For example, an employee who struggles to take notes quickly enough at a monthly staff meeting could ask about recording the meetings and playing back the tape later. But keep in mind that it may be best to disclose a disability if the needed accommodations might require permission from the boss. It’s a good idea for employees to practice how they’ll present the information if choosing to disclose a disability. The goal is to be brief, clear, and positive, and to describe how they work around the disability.

For example, they might say: “My makes it a challenge to understand spoken instructions with a lot of steps. But my solution is to ask for written instructions or to write them down myself. My supervisor at my previous job sent me email messages, and that worked great. In fact, he gave me an excellent evaluation on my last review.”

Key takeaways

  • There may be ways to adapt and create informal accommodations without telling an employer about a disability.

  • If an employee decides to disclose a disability, it’s best to be brief, clear, and positive.

  • Because of privacy rules, co-workers most likely will only hear about the disability if the employee shares that information with them.


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