Disclosing Your Disability to an Employer

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Only you can decide whether and how much to tell your employer about your psychiatric disability. On the positive side, telling your employer about your diagnosis is the only way to protect your legal right to any accommodations you might need to get or keep a job. However, revealing your disability also leaves you open to discrimination which may limit your opportunities for employment and advancement. 

It's a complex decision, and one you shouldn't make until you've thought it through. Here's what you might want to think about: 

Preparing to Disclose

 

1. Assess your job search skills to determine whether you need help from your therapist or mental health agency to: 

 

bulletInitiate contact or arranging an interview with the employer 
bulletInterview 
bulletDescribe your disability 
bulletNegotiate the terms of employment 
bulletNegotiate accommodations 

 

2. Identify any potential accommodations you might need during the hiring process or on your first day of work 

3. Explore your feelings about having a mental illness and about sharing that information with others -- remember, no one can force you to disclose if you don't want to  

4. Research potential employers' attitudes toward mental illness and screen out unsupportive employers 

 

bulletHave they hired someone with a psychiatric disability before? 
bulletDo they personally know someone with a mental illness? 
bulletWhat positive or negative experiences have they had in employing someone with a mental illness? 
bulletDo they show signs -- newsletters, posted notices, employee education programs about mental illness, etc. -- of encouraging a diverse workforce? 
bulletDo they have a corporate culture that favors flex time, mentoring programs, telecommuting, flexible benefit plans, and other programs that help employees work efficiently and well? 
bulletDoes the job have certain requirements (e.g., child care, high security, some government positions) that would put you at a disadvantage if you disclosed your diagnosis? 

 

5. Weigh the benefits and risks of disclosure 

 

bulletDo you need to involve an outside agency to get or keep the job? 
bulletDo you need accommodation or other employer support? 
bulletWhen will you need this accommodation? 
bulletDo other people in the company need similar accommodation? 
bulletHow stressful will it be for you to hide your disability? 

 

6. If you decide not to disclose, find other ways to get the support you need 

 

bulletBehind-the-scenes support from friends, therapists, etc. 
bulletResearch potential employers who provide these supports to all employees 

 

7. If you decide to disclose, plan in advance how you'll handle it 

 

bulletWho will say it (you, your therapist, your job coach, etc.) 
bulletWhat to say (see below) 
bulletWhen to say it 
Under the ADA, a person with a disability can choose to disclose at any time, and is not required to disclose at all unless s/he wants to request an accommodation or wants other protection under the law. Someone with a disability can disclose at any of these times:  

 

bulletBefore the hiring interview 
bulletDuring the interview 
bulletAfter the interview but before any job offer 
bulletAfter a job offer but before starting a job 
bulletAnytime after beginning a job 

 
We recommend disclosing sometime before serious problems arise on the job. It is unlikely that you would be protected under the ADA if you disclosed right before you were about to get fired. Employers are most likely to be responsive to a disclosure if they think it is done in good faith, and not as a last-ditch effort to keep your job. 

bulletWho to tell 

 

bulletYour supervisor or manager, if he or she must provide or approve an accommodation 
bulletThe EEO/Affirmative Action officer or Human Resources otaff, if no immediate accommodation is needed, but you would like the protection of the ADA 
bulletThe person interviewing you or Human Resources staff, if you might need accommodation during the hiring process 
bulletThe Employee Assistance Program staff, if you are already on the job, experiencing difficulties, and need help deciding how, how much, and to whom to disclose 

 

When You Disclose

 

bullet1. Decide how specific you will be in describing your psychiatric disability 

 

bulletGeneral terms: a disability, a medical condition, an illness 
bulletVague but more specific terms: a biochemical imbalance, a neurological problem, a brain disorder, difficulty with stress 
bulletSpecifically referring to mental illness: a mental illness, psychiatric disorder, mental disability 
bulletYour exact diagnosis: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder 

 

bullet2. Describe the skills you have that make you able to perform the main duties of the job  

 

bulletqualifications 
bullettechnical skills 
bulletgeneral work skills 

 

3. Describe any functional limitations or behaviors caused by your disability which interfere with your performance (See Steps to Define Functional Limitations)

4. Identify the accommodations you need to overcome those functional limitations or behaviors (See Steps to Identify Reasonable Accommodations)

5. Optional: You may choose to describe the behaviors or symptoms the employer might observe and tell the employer what steps to take as a result. 

6. Point the employer to resources for further information 

 

bulletEmployment specialist, supported employment provider, rehabilitation counselor, job coach 
bulletDoctor, psychiatrist 
bulletTherapist, counselor, social worker 
bulletJob Accommodation Network
bulletADA Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers
bulletOthers listed in the Resources Section

 

You may find it helpful to prepare a script to read from. For example: 

"I have (preferred term for psychiatric disability) that I am recovering from. Currently, I can/have (the skills required) to do (the main duties) of the job, but sometimes (functional limitations) interfere with my ability to (duties you may have trouble performing). It helps if I have (name the specific accommodations you need). I work best when (other accommodations)." 

You could also add the following information: 

"Sometimes you might see (symptoms or behaviors associated with symptoms). When you see that, you can (name the action steps for the employer). Here is the number of my (employment specialist, doctor, therapist, previous employer, JAN, etc.) for any information that you might need about my ability to handle the job." 

 

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1997, 1998 Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Boston University

January 27, 2006

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