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Disclosing Disability to an Employer: Why To – When To – How To

An image of Melanie Whetzel, Lead Consultant on JAN’s Cognitive / Neurological team.
By Melanie Whetzel , Lead Consultant on JAN’s Cognitive / Neurological team at Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
March 14, 2017
An image of Rajiv Shah, a blind professional sitting outside.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted on July 26, 1990, is legislation purposed to improve the lives of people with disabilities by protecting their rights to have access to employment, public entities, transportation, public accommodations and commercial facilities, telecommunications and more. It helps people with disabilities compete equally for employment and receive the accommodations and protection they need to work.  

Are you in need of accommodations in the workplace due to a disability? Do you know what steps to take in order to get the process started? Disclosure is the first and sometimes the most difficult step. Just thinking about this can often cause anxiety and stress. So what exactly is disclosure?

Disclosure is divulging or giving out personal information about a disability. It is important for the employee to provide information about the nature of the disability, the limitations involved, and how the disability affects the ability to learn and /or perform the job effectively. The employer has a right to know if a disability is involved when an employee asks for accommodations. Deciding if, when, and how to share disability-related information with a prospective or current employer can be overwhelming. There is no single right or wrong approach to disclosing a disability. The disability disclosure decision-making process requires answering a number of personal questions that may be different with each employment experience. Some of those questions may include the following: “Do I have an obligation to disclose?” “When is the right time?” “How much medical information will I be required to provide?” and “How will disclosing the information affect my employment?”

Let’s look at three reasons why someone may choose to disclose a disability to their employer:

1. To ask for job accommodations

Tina is an activities director at an assisted living facility, required to log notes into a binder for all of the activities and residents who participate.  Because of a brain injury, Tina struggles to hand write notes.  She requests speech-to-text software that enables her to dictate her notes. She is then able to print them out and place them in the binder. 

2. To receive benefits or privileges of employment

The ADA requires employers to provide accommodations so that employees with disabilities can enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment equal to those enjoyed by similarly-situated employees without disabilities. Benefits and privileges of employment include employer-sponsored training, access to cafeterias, lounges, gymnasiums, auditoriums, transportation, and parties or other social functions.

Sean is an employee with Down syndrome who signed up for a nutrition class, but had trouble understanding the information that was presented. His employer asked the instructor to provide pictures of the types of food she was recommending employees eat. Sean was able to use these pictures when making food choices.

3. To explain an unusual circumstance

Della has temperature sensitivities due to multiple sclerosis, but so far has been able to manage them on her own without the need to disclose her condition to her employer.  However, when the air conditioner breaks down and is reportedly going to take a week to replace, Della realizes that she will need to work from home as an accommodation, will need to disclose to her employer, and explain her condition and the need for the accommodation.

Disclosure can be quite simple. You can tell your employer that you need to talk about an adjustment or change that is essential for a reason related to a medical condition. You may use plain English to request an accommodation. You do not have to mention the ADA nor use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.” It can be as easy as what Tina may have said to her supervisor, “I need to talk to you about the difficulty I encounter when I try to hand write notes due to a medical condition.”

The general rule under the ADA is that a person does not have to disclose a disability until an accommodation is needed. Ideally, employees will disclose a disability and request accommodations before performance problems arise, or at least before they become too serious. That can be during the application or interview process, the first day on the job, or years down the road.  For someone who needs testing accommodations, disclosure in the application process may be necessary. For another applicant who has great difficulty communicating and thinking on her feet, a request for interview questions ahead of time may be needed.  Some employees who have successfully worked for years without accommodations may find it necessary to disclose and ask for accommodations due to changes in their job, or changes in their disability.


Questions about disclosure? Contact JAN for free information, or to discuss an accommodation situation privately with a consultant. Resources are one click away at


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