Figuring out how—and when—to disclose the fact that I’m autistic used to give me anxiety. It’s a question many job searchers with disabilities must consider, regardless of career.
When I was searching for a job before graduating law school, one question on every application made me feel especially anxious: “Are you a person with a disability?”
I’m autistic, so the answer is fairly obvious. Despite this, I’d find myself pausing when I came to this part on a job application, lightly hovering my mouse over the options.
Selecting “yes” would mean complete honesty. I’m not ashamed of my autism whatsoever. Autism is just as much part of who I am as the fact I am female or have red hair. But selecting this answer meant potentially opening myself up to discrimination or judgment. It could even mean I wouldn’t get an interview, despite being qualified for a position.
‘PREFER NOT TO DISCLOSE,’ IS THE SAME AS SAYING ‘YES, I HAVE A DISABILITY, BUT I DON’T WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW.’”
“Prefer not to disclose,” was my only other choice. I would often joke to friends and colleagues who worked in HR that “prefer not to disclose” is the same as saying “Yes, I have a disability, but I don’t want to tell you about it right now.” It’s true though. How much information about my disability I share should be entirely up to me.
This question on job applications is indicative of a larger phenomenon for people with disabilities: When, if ever, is the right time to disclose a disability to an interviewer, supervisor, colleagues, or HR?
Legally, there is no one-size-fits all answer. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides guidance on accessibility, disability discrimination, and accommodations for businesses and organizations. “The law does not require you disclose when you get hired, in interview process, or on the application,” says Emily Shuman, deputy director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center. “Employers can’t ask anything prying in an interview, but can ask about performing the essential functions of a job, with or without accommodations.”
David Reischer, an employment attorney and CEO of legal services referral service LegalAdvice.com, says that an accommodation “can be requested at any time by the employee, or even a potential employee, during the hiring process.“
When searching for a job while finishing up law school, I learned that I had to disclose early on, either on the application itself or in an interview, because employers would likely Google my name, and my résumé would appear sparse if I removed disability-related content and experiences. Even after initial disclosures either on an application or in the interview process, I learned disclosure is not a one-time thing; rather, it’s an evolving conversation that varies as time goes on.
I had a good experience disclosing up front and then incorporating disability into my professional relationships. During interviews, the conversations I had surrounding disability and my qualifications were meaningful; I would highlight my strengths and what I can do. Rarely did we talk about accommodations I might need until after I was hired, both when I was interning for various organizations and when I began a full-time position after graduating from law school, and those talks became an ongoing, evolving dialogue with my supervisors as I learned how to practice law.
But early disclosure isn’t necessarily the right choice for everyone. I spoke with Luke Debevec, a partner at Reed Smith LLP, who has epilepsy and heads up Reed Smith’s disability-focused business inclusion group. Debevec believes disclosure is an extremely practical decision a person needs to make. “It depends context to context, even for the same person, whether to disclose or not.”
That was true for me, too. I didn’t share the same amount of information about my disability with all my colleagues. I made the decision to trust my supervisors and certain coworkers with specific details about how autism affected my legal work and processes. When and how I disclosed would change depending on who I talked to, and why my disability mattered in the particular conversation. For instance, I might tell supervisors up front because I need an accommodation, but I might not tell co-workers specific aspects of what is hard for me, because I also want to be perceived as an equal and included in the workplace.
Shuman’s advice for when to disclose is straightforward. “Generally, the best thing to do is disclose that you have a disability when you realize that you cannot perform the essential functions of your job because of your disability and need an accommodation,” she says. The essential functions of the job are the kinds of tasks written within a job description, or the “basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
For me, a reasonable accommodation might be as simple as allowing me to wear headphones to block out office chatter or the hum of fluorescent lights, or to break down a monumental task into smaller chunks so I can properly prioritize and won’t become too overwhelmed. These small things make me more productive, and require no financial investment. Two-thirds of accommodations cost under $500; 25% of accommodations, like mine, cost nothing.
Scott Beth, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Intuit, believes that a disability disclosure should be a safe, trusting moment for all people involved, whenever it happens—and whether or not the person disclosing needs an accommodation. Beth described “creating a culture with courage and comfort” where senior leaders are willing to share their journeys and diverse identities in order to make others feel more comfortable and less afraid to share their own stories.
I’m thankful that I didn’t experience outright disability discrimination, but disclosure is still an important topic for me because many lawyers see disability as a sign of weakness, and perceived weakness can break careers. Currently, less than 1% of lawyers self-identify as having a disability. The experience of disclosing the fact that I’m autisitc made me feel determined to help shift the narrative so that there will be more disabled lawyers out there.
I recently began my own business to focus on disability inclusion efforts in the workplace and to help others understand the intricacies involved with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disclosure is naturally part of explaining why I care about inclusion now. I know when I eventually return to practicing law, I will be acutely aware of essential job functions, and how to best disclose in a way that is meaningful and productive, while also advocating for myself. My fear of discrimination is lesser than my need to receive reasonable and necessary accommodations, alongside my desire to be accepted.
Whether disclosure is necessary in order to receive accommodations for physical or invisible disabilities, to create a more accepting company culture, or to feel you are able to show up as your full self at work, the decision is highly personal. It can lead to important conversations and give each person the opportunity to succeed and feel understood.