The conventional wisdom in vocational rehabilitation circles has long been fairly straight-forward: job applicants with non-evident disabilities should not disclose their condition or ask for reasonable accommodations until they have received a job offer. The thinking is that job seekers shouldn’t give an employer any reason to put their resume in the ‘no’ pile when they’re competing against dozens or hundreds of other candidates.
While there is limited research into real-life hiring situations, several studies back up the idea that early disclosure carries risk. In a 2020 study of teachers with disabilities at a mid-sized college in England, many told the researchers they believed their disability was seen “as a deficit,” and a number of them said given the chance, they would not disclose again.
An earlier study in Hong Kong attempted to gauge employers’ attitudes toward a variety of disabilities. Over a three-month period, the researchers replied to more than 400 job advertisements for clerical help with letters that were identical except one didn’t mention a disability, one cited a hearing impairment, another said the writer used crutches and another mentioned that the job seeker had recovered from 'reactive depression.' Of the 331 positive responses received, the letter that didn't mention a disability had a significantly greater positive response rate. Among the other three, the most positive responses were for the candidate with a hearing issue, followed by the use of crutches. The letter mentioning depression came in last.
That doesn’t surprise vocational rehabilitation researcher Pamela Capraro, who spent decades as a VR counselor at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago helping people get back to work. “Many people with mental illness don’t say anything. They’re worried the employer will think they might engage in violent or disruptive behavior,” she explained. The rule of thumb, she says, “is and always has been that you would not typically send a letter or resume that flags a disability. You’re promoting yourself so do it on the basis of what you bring to the job.”
Indeed, people are not required to disclose a disability when they are applying or interviewing for a job unless they need an accommodation to complete the process. Many people with disabilities never disclose their condition, preferring to self-accommodate. However, vocational rehabilitation experts say it is also important for people to know that if they decide to request an accommodation, their employer is allowed to make medical inquiries, including how or if the disability would impact the person’s ability to do the job.
Yet some in the disability field believe that things have changed for the better during the Covid pandemic, which should make the decision to disclose less fraught. A worker shortage prompted many firms to look for new pools of workers they might not have considered before, including people with disabilities. More importantly, employers allowed many more people to work from home, which benefitted both people with physical conditions that made commuting or working eight-hour days difficult and those with developmental or mental conditions who found working in office environments a strain. “The pandemic has been a gift for people with disabilities and others,” says Capraro. “We used to ask companies to allow someone to work from home and companies would say ‘If we give that to him, we have to give it to everyone.’”
On a more philosophical level, many companies began to embrace a broader definition of workplace inclusivity during the pandemic, extending it beyond gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity to include disability status. One example of just how much things have changed is a recent TV spot by Chicago-based accounting and advisory firm BDO. The commercial is centered on George Marriott, a business product manager who oversees development of the firm’s global client portal. Marriott, who is legally blind, was chosen for the ad campaign because he is an example of someone who is thriving at the firm and helping others by “bringing his whole self to work,” says Deneen Akture, the firm’s chief marketing and communications officer. “George is passionate about technology because he uses it in his own life. It’s a message to anyone that we believe that when we live our purpose, together we thrive,” adds brand programs director Brooke Hipp.
Attorney David Rowland, who practices labor and employment law at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, agrees that the employment climate around disclosure has changed. It’s been more than 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and many large corporations have decades of experience making accommodations for workers who have medical, developmental or psychiatric conditions. A new generation of people with disabilities has grown up knowing their rights regarding nondiscrimination under the ADA’s protections, and disability-rights activists have become vocal about issues ranging from transportation accessibility to social stigma.
The idea that non-evident disabilities need to be hidden permanently or only revealed at the end of the hiring process “is going the way of the dodo bird,” says Rowland, who acquired a disability decades ago after treatment for a brain tumor. “I believe it’s time people should stop worrying so much about disclosing. Like any other aspect of your life, you don’t want to be in a position where you’re worried about being yourself. Hiding it now may seem more comfortable but working for years without disclosing may be much worse, especially if you actually need an accommodation to be at your best.”
University of Washington Acting Assistant Professor Heather Evans, PhD, is an example of someone who wouldn’t think of not disclosing her disability during a job interview. Evans has multiple sclerosis, and her symptoms are exacerbated by hot weather so she uses a cane on a regular basis and a wheelchair in the summer. “I tell my students stigma is still strong. But for me, now that I’m almost 50 and still an honorary grad student, I’m going to talk about being disabled. It shapes how I conduct research and how I teach. If a group is not comfortable with that, I don’t want to be there.”
Vocational rehabilitation researcher Robert Trierweiler can easily envision situations where early disclosure makes sense. He cites the example of a person with Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that causes people to struggle with suppressing certain movements or sounds. It is exacerbated by stressful conditions such as a job interview. “Maybe you would want to disclose that at the beginning of the interview. ‘By the way, I have Tourette’s Syndrome so every once in a while, I may make an involuntary movement.’ That would take some of the stress off.” It’s also possible these days, he adds, that a person’s story of living with a disability will be viewed in positive rather than negative terms.
Yet Trierweiler, who spent decades as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, also has had clients who feel that health privacy concerns are paramount and who wouldn’t mention a disability even if it’s evident. “It’s a very divisive issue. Some people say you shouldn’t disclose at all and others believe, ‘Why should I hide my disability? It’s part of who I am,’” says Trierweiler. The complexity of the decision is why the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is working to create a decision-support guide that will help people think through and decide whether or not to disclose a disability to an employer. (See related story.)
Employment attorney Rowland agrees that disclosure will always be “a personal decision” that will differ according to people’s situations and personalities. But he adds, “I’ve been advocating to people with a disability that it’s beneficial to start talking about it when it’s relevant. Thankfully, we’re moving toward transparency.”