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How to Disclose a Disability to Your Employer (and Whether You Should)

The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids employers from discriminating against applicants or employees on the basis of disability, but the gap between the letter and application of the law can swallow people whole.

Emily Johnson was denied a handicapped parking spot at work because her boss wanted to leave it open for visitors who might need it. Holly Nelson, who has a hearing impairment, was terminated from a new position during her probation period because she didn’t hear a supervisor’s instructions. Jocelyn Mondragon called to reschedule a job interview when her motorized wheelchair broke down. Instead, the hiring manager canceled entirely. Roz Tolliver’s supervisor told her she was “broken” and would never get promoted. Allyson DuPont started her own company after getting fed up with access barriers related to her wheelchair. All of these stories are horrifying. Many are technically illegal. None are particularly unique.

“It’s difficult to disclose at work because most of us know about cases of overt or covert discrimination in employment, whether it’s around disability or age, gender, sexual orientation, race, class or another category,” said Sonya Huber, an associate professor at Fairfield University who has written extensively about living with rheumatoid arthritis. “People are frightened for good reason.”

Caren Goldberg, a human resource management professor and a consultant on discrimination issues, said she often sees people grappling with the decision. “I wish I could say everyone should disclose, but depending on the nature of the organization, reactions can be very subtle,” Dr. Goldberg said. “Often, it’s something that’s not done with nefarious intention.”

Negotiations for accommodations can be arduous, even when they are conducted in good faith. When Charis Hill asked for a yoga ball chair to alleviate pain related to their ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that affects the spine, a simple request stretched into weeks of public self-advocacy. “I felt a little humiliated by the lack of confidentiality when the time came to complete the formal request,” they said. “The experience certainly made me have second thoughts about requesting any other assistance in order to do my job.”

For Jed Findley, who works in education, his reluctance to disclose stemmed from his desire for privacy, as well as fear of losing a position he loved. “I knew they couldn’t fire me, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t discriminate in other ways,” he said. “People’s attitudes could change toward me. Oftentimes an accommodation is viewed as an excuse.”

. Eve Hill acknowledged that deciding whether and when to disclose a disability can be challenging. “You don’t want them to be thinking things that aren’t true, especially things that may be worse than the reality,” she said. “When given a choice, you probably want to go with the one that gives you civil rights protections.”

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