Introducing “Employment Connections.” First Topic: Disclosing a Disability

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APH ConnectCenter is launching a new quarterly webinar, Employment Connections, focusing on employment-related topics. For our first edition, we discussed when job seekers should disclose their disability with Russell Shaffer, Executive Vice President of Strategy & Programs at Disability:IN.

Russell Shaffer has a lot of experience with disclosing a disability when applying for a job. Not only because of his position at Disability:IN – a nonprofit with a network of over 400 corporations working to expand opportunities for people with disabilities – but also because he’s been blind since his early 30s due to retinitis pigmentosa.

First and foremost, Russell says disability disclosure is a personal decision. No one should force you to self-disclose and you should never feel pressure to do it.

He points out that 75% of disabilities aren’t apparent. That means 25% of the population – such as people who are blind or low vision who use a cane or people use a wheelchair – will ultimately disclose their disability simply through their presence. But until there’s an in-person meeting, there’s a decision to make about when to disclose.

“When you’re filling out an application or sending in your resume, or having a virtual screening interview or phone interview, your vision loss isn’t necessarily going to be self-evident,” Russell says. “But be aware that what’s on your résumé might signal a disability to your potential employer, such as being involved with a local blindness organization, as well as what you post on social media because they will look at that.”

Establishing trust

Although Russell has never personally seen someone disclose a disability on a résumé, it can be implied by affiliations such as the one he mentioned and more. Then it may be more necessary to disclose your disability up front.

“I believe strongly in trust and transparency, so if someone can infer something from my résumé, I’m going to tell them about it outright,” he says. “That way, I control the narrative. A recruiter or hiring manager is constructing a narrative about you based on what information they have. Still, you can be proactive about constructing the narrative that you’re the most qualified candidate for the job.”

One way to control the narrative is to turn any negative perceptions about disabilities into positive ones. For example, point out that as someone who is blind or low vision, your unique perspective gives you great resiliency, adaptability, and problem-solving skills. In Russell’s case, when applying for a job years ago that required extensive travel, he removed any doubt from the potential employer’s mind by explaining exactly how he travels successfully with his white cane and got the job.

As more companies are actively recruiting diverse teams, disability disclosure may even be an advantage.

“Microsoft is trying to design and develop products that are inclusive and accessible for all,” Russell says. “Your lived experience could be a real advantage in an area such as usability testing.”

But never forget that although you’re interviewing for a position, you should also be “interviewing” your potential employer. 

“If you don’t feel comfortable disclosing your disability, you should really think about whether this is the right place for you to work,” Russell says. “I know it’s easy for me, as someone with a job, to say that, but if you don’t feel safe talking about your disability, then that’s something to consider.”

Remember your rights and options

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal for a potential employer to ask you about a disability or make hiring decisions on that basis. But they can ask if you need any reasonable accommodation, which they are required to provide under the ADA.

“If you require accommodations, it’s best to bring that up as early in the process as possible,” Russell says. “If there are things you need to do your job, your new boss probably isn’t going to feel great about day-one accommodation requests they didn’t see coming. It all comes back to trust.”

Ultimately, he reinforces the fact that the decision about when to disclose a disability is a very personal one – and it can be situational, which means thinking through what’s best for not only you but the job you’re applying for.

“Maybe you put it on your cover letter, or maybe you bring it up in response to an interview question,” Russell says. “You want to determine the timing that feels most comfortable to you, and that’s going to lead to the outcome you want, which is getting the job.”

Learn more: 

Watch our inaugural Employment Connections, where we explored the topic of disability disclosure with Russell in more detail.