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Talking About Your Disability at Work

How to Ask for Accommodations
by Dan Woog

When it comes to communicating about disabilities in the workplace, the best approach depends on your particular disability, job, supervisor, and personality.

Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute Centers of Innovation on Disability, says such discussions are tricky, because how and when you disclose a disability at work can have significant career repercussions. This is particularly true if the disability is hidden, such as a mental illness, or has no physical symptoms.

So should you tell? And if so, how do you conduct the conversation so you get the accommodations you need? Read this expert advice.

Consider This Before Disclosure

Blanck says disclosure should be done "very strategically." For example, if you're a young, high-powered employee with a slowly progressing disease, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or HIV/AIDS, you may want to wait.

However, "every decision has implications for the employee and the employer," Blanck explains. "If you tell and then suffer subtle discrimination, that's bad. But it's also bad if you don't tell and spend every workday feeling pressured and frustrated." And your employer may use nondisclosure against you if you later try to argue you've been discriminated against or unfairly terminated.

Blanck advises employees to undergo an independent medical evaluation before disclosure. If you use your employer's doctor, study the company's confidentiality policy. "(The doctor's) job is to maintain a safe and appropriate workplace," he says. "If you've got a communicable disease or a psychological issue, the company physician may be forced to disclose your condition, whether you want to or not."

Other considerations before disclosure:

  • What's your job status? A longtime, highly valued employee may have different reasons to disclose -- or not -- than a new hire.

  • Who should you tell? Your relationship with your immediate supervisor may determine who you target for initial disclosure.

  • Is disclosure necessary to continuing in your job or maintaining a safe workplace? Will you request an accommodation? What kind?

"Good-faith disclosure should be the norm," Blanck says. "But the world is not always a clean place. Think disclosure through very carefully." Top executives who fear losing their jobs should seek outside counsel first.

How to Disclose Your Disability

Writing out disclosure can prevent misunderstandings. But consider your words carefully. "Do not put something in writing that could be prejudicial," Blanck stresses. "Don't say, 'I really can't do this job anymore.' People under pressure may be vulnerable and say things that will hurt them later on. Instead, say, 'I may request an accommodation that will enable me to perform at my current excellent level.'"

After initial disclosure, continue to communicate with your employer, he says. Also, keep your expectations of accommodations in check, based on how reasonable they are under the law.

Oce Harrison, program director for the ADA and Accessible IT Centre, says the person with the disability must determine how much to reveal and what he needs. Usually a supervisor needs enough information to provide reasonable accommodations.  A typical request may be: "I have a neuromotor disease. The functioning in my hands is decreasing. I can no longer answer the phone, so I need a headset."

The stakes are higher for new employees. "If you don't disclose in an interview, there may be consequences," Blanck says. "It may be too late later on. If you're interviewing for work in a nuclear power plant and you don't disclose alcoholism, you may subject yourself to termination."

Still, every situation is different. "If I was young and just diagnosed with a disease like MS, I'm not sure I'd tell my employer right away," Blanck says. "I would probably want to make my own way and not be put into a 'disability box.' Still, I realize that disclosure is a very individual decision."

Harrison agrees that individual needs should drive disclosure decisions: "A new hire may want to start off on the right foot, yet need an accommodation to do the job right. It's your right to ask for an accommodation, and it's also OK not to disclose in an interview. It all depends on your comfort level and personality."

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