Disclosing Disability in the Workplace

By Don Goldstein

Disclosing Disabilities in the Workplace

Photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities on the basis of those disabilities “in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” The law also mandates that employers make reasonable accommodations for the known disabilities of a qualified individual, such as making existing facilities physically accessible, restructuring jobs, modifying work schedules, and providing readers or various other assistive technologies. This blog post will explain what a disability is, as well as when, why, and how to disclose one in the workplace.

What Is a Disability?

A disability is defined by the government as “a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” For the purposes of this blog post, I will be referring to two broad categories of disabilities: visible disabilities and invisible disabilities. Examples of visible disabilities are mobility impairments, amputations, paralysis, lack of physical coordination, and some speech, vision, and cognitive impairments. Invisible disabilities may include ADD/ADHD, low vision, some hearing loss, some types of autism, PTSD, learning disabilities, and emotional or psychological conditions. Alcohol and drug dependencies might be considered as disabilities if the person is in a recognized treatment program.

Disclosing a Disability

Disclosure of a disability in the workplace is the process of divulging or giving out personal information about a disability, the limitations involved, and how the disability affects the ability to do a job. According to the ADA, a person is not required to disclose a disability either during the interview process or as an employee until an accommodation is needed. If you don’t need an accommodation, it’s also perfectly fine to never disclose at all.

The decision about when to disclose a disability is very personal and there is no single right or wrong approach. It also depends greatly on whether the disability is visible or invisible. With a visible disability, a job candidate might not have a choice of whether or not to disclose; although if, for instance, the interview is by phone or even on a video platform, a visible disability like using a wheelchair might not be as noticeable as it would be in an in-person interview.

It’s a good idea to practice a disclosure speech that anticipates the concerns of the employer and may come with an accommodation request. Like in any interview, a well-planned, thought-out, and proactive approach puts the candidate much more in control of the conversation. During the interview process, you might find that not all the interviewers will have educated themselves regarding ADA-appropriate vocabulary and accessibility, leaving you to respond to an interviewer’s assumptions. By anticipating questions and concerns, you can advocate for yourself more effectively, as well as reduce the stress of the moment.

When to Disclose

Some disabilities may need to be disclosed before or during an interview process if an accommodation is needed. While a person with a visible disability may need to ask whether the location for an in-person interview is accessible, there are also instances when an invisible disability might need to be revealed. For instance, if the interview involves a pre-employment test, a candidate may need to reveal a learning disability and request more time or a reader.

When a candidate with an invisible disability is hired, again there is no requirement to disclose the disability. Disclosing a disability should be done strategically. Depending on the circumstances, the disability might be disclosed on the first day, years down the road, or maybe never if it turns out not to be relevant. In any event, as a new employee, it’s a good idea to wait, if possible, in order to get used to the new environment and understand better the actual job requirements and how your disability might affect the performance of your job. Timing is very important. If performance problems arise because of the disability, the employee should not wait for them to become so serious that they might result in termination.

5 Good Reasons to Disclose

There may be good reasons to disclose a disability:

  1. It may help you do the job better. There may be a workplace barrier that is preventing you from doing a good job.
  2. It can help explain an unusual circumstance in your job performance.
  3. Your disclosure may lead to accommodations that offer you equal access to tools, benefits, and privileges of employment such as trainings and access to lounges, cafeterias, auditoriums, gymnasiums, transportation, outings, and parties.
  4. Your disclosure may lead to accommodations that relieve a physical or psychological burden related to your disability that other coworkers do not endure.
  5. Your disclosure may contribute to the understanding of your disability.

How to Disclose

Once you have decided to disclose and have a good knowledge of your legal rights, the next step is to decide to whom to disclose and in what format. It’s a good idea to check the employee handbook to see if there are any guidelines about disclosure policies. You can disclose orally to your supervisor by saying something like: “I need to talk to you about the difficulties that I encounter when _____.”

However, I think it’s better to disclose by email as that provides a written record. In any request format though, the reasonable accommodation must be requested.


The fact that many people are now working at home because of the COVID-19 crisis is actually a double-edged sword for people with disabilities. On the one hand, it makes it easier to keep some disabilities confidential, and often the accommodations needed are already in place at home. On the other hand, it makes it more difficult to contribute to and advance people’s understanding of the disability and you.