Working with Disabilities: Is it Okay to Tell My Boss That I Need Special Treatment

disabled employees in the workplace

Living with a disability presents specific challenges in obtaining a job and performing job functions. While not everyone will have to face your specific hurdles, a disability doesn’t have to be a major roadblock to a fulfilling career.

If you’re wondering whether and when you should disclose your disability to your boss, read on to learn more about how you are legally protected, what reasonable accommodations are, and how you can even leverage your disability as an advantage.

Definition of a Disability

Before you can determine whether you should disclose your disability to your employer, it is important to understand what constitutes a disability in the workplace.

The term covers a broad spectrum of illness, injury, and conditions. It is also important to note that not all disabilities will interfere with your job performance. If so, you often are not legally or ethically obligated to disclose that disability to your superiors.

In terms of a legal definition of disability, the best source to turn to is The Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. This legislation was put into place to prevent employers from discriminating against U.S. citizens with disabilities.

Under this act, employers (with over 15 employees in most states) are legally obligated to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. It also provides a legal channel to pursue should a company refuse to hire you or attempt to terminate you based on one of the protected disabilities.

What are the covered disabilities of the ADA?

disabled employees in the workplace

Under the umbrella terms, the ADA protects the following employees with disabilities:

  • An employee with a current disability. For example, the employee is currently hearing impaired.
  • An employee with a history of impairment from a disability. For example, an employee who is in remission from cancer.
  • Any employee that the employer has labeled or treated as disabled. It doesn’t matter whether there has been a diagnosis or whether the employee is actually disabled. Employers are not allowed to discriminate on perceived disabilities, regardless of whether the employee identifies as disabled or not.

The ADA does not explicitly list protected disabilities. Instead, it offers this legal definition of a protected disability:

A protected disability is a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits a major life activity.

Some disabilities obviously fall under this ADA definition like:

  • Physical impairments that limit walking or movement
  • Visual impairments
  • Hearing impairments.

Other disabilities are less visible, but can still be limiting to life functions like:

  • Mental illness (depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.)
  • Learning disabilities (dyslexia, etc.)

If the employer can make reasonable accommodations for the employee’s disability so that they can effectively perform their job duties, the employee is protected under the ADA.

When is a Good Time to Disclose a Disability to a Potential Employer?

disabled employees in the workplace

The interview process is stressful as it is. Adding a disability to the mix makes it exponentially harder.

To prevent discrimination based on any disability, it is important to disclose disabilities to an employer. However, it can be a delicate balance to find the proper time to disclose a disability during the interview or hiring process.

As long as you are qualified for the job, you shouldn’t be scared to reveal a disability to an employer.

Am I Legally Obligated to Disclose My Disability?

After being notified about an employee’s disability, employers are under strict confidentiality laws. Only under specific circumstances may an employer reveal medical or disability information about its employees.

But what about your disclosure to your employer? An employee is not legally required to disclose a disability to their employer. In fact, if it doesn’t directly affect your job, you may not need to disclose the disability at all.

But if you’re going to need reasonable accommodations to perform basic job functions and in order to be protected by ADA, be prepared to disclose those accommodations in an interview.

The more open and honest you can be, the better.

Potential Problems of Disclosing a Disability

The ADA legally protects employees from direct discrimination based on a disability. However, discrimination can be difficult to prove during an interview process. Employers are not under obligation to disclose why they chose one candidate over another to hire.

To avoid potential problems, be prepared when you go into an interview with the following strategies:

  • Investigate your qualifications for the position. Do you meet the criteria in the job description?
  • Come prepared with reasonable accommodations to make if your disability hinders any aspect of the position. Help the employer visualize how simple it will be to accommodate you.

Often employers have never encountered a person with your specific disabilities and won’t understand what reasonable accommodations look like. Coming to the interview with this information will greatly improve your chances of the employer seeing your potential in the position.

  • Prepare for questions that may come up. What are some questions you could see the interviewer asking you about your disability? The more open you are, the more honest and genuine you will come across.
  • Lead with your disability right away. Sometimes the best strategy is to just be open upfront. It eases any tension the interviewer may have about asking sensitive questions, and it proves your confidence as a person thriving with a disability.

How to Turn Your Disability into a Career Advantage

disabled employees in the workplace

There are many people with disabilities doing fantastic things in their careers. In fact, being a person with disabilities can often provide a unique perspective that inspires creativity and innovation on the job.

Often, people with disabilities are concerned that they will be seen as someone complicating things for the employer.

This makes them less confident about their qualifications and skills. The focus tends to shift to the things they cannot do instead of building upon skills they can do and probably excel at. If you have, for instance, excellent coding skills, it doesn’t matter whether you do it sitting in an office chair or a wheelchair.

Just like any other applicant, you need to show the employer how they will benefit from hiring you. Your determination, confidence when facing challenges, and creativity in overcoming obstacles will often be qualities that set you apart from other candidates.

One avenue that people with disabilities find rewarding is becoming an advocate for other people with disabilities. If you are the first person in a corporation in a wheelchair, for example, you can pave the path for accommodations to be made in the building.

You can help the employer adjust policies, procedures, and processes to make it easier for the next person with a disability to thrive in their company.

This will put you in a position to not only make the workplace more pleasant for you and other employees with disabilities, but it will also help the company create an excellent company culture that fosters inclusion and diversity. In turn, both the business and the employees alike will benefit from a pleasant workplace.

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Ashley Wilson is a content creator, writing about business and tech. She has been known to reference movies in casual conversation and enjoys baking homemade treats for her husband and their two felines, Lady and Gaga. You can get in touch with Ashley via Twitter.

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