Coaching clients frequently ask me whether they should disclose their disability to an employer. My answer is, “It depends.” The best approach is to develop a personalized plan based on the many factors that affect employment outcomes. These factors include an individual’s job skills, primary challenges, employment history and career.
Disclosure can benefit individuals who are currently employed as well as those who want to be. If your challenges are very noticeable or hard to manage during the workday, disclosing can be much more effective than simply hoping that your social and communication problems or organizational difficulties will go unnoticed.
Disclosing also compels an employer, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)*, to make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees. An accommodation is a modification or adjustment that allows a disabled individual to participate in the interviewing process or to perform the essential functions of his or her job. Examples of reasonable accommodations include providing written instructions, allowing the use of headphones to block office noise, a modified training program, flexible scheduling, etc.
On January 1, 2009 the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) went into effect. It changes the way that disability is defined, thereby greatly increasing the number of people who will now qualify as being disabled in the workplace. More significantly, it shifts the focus away from whether an employee is disabled or not, and places the emphasis on whether an employer meets its obligation to accommodate a disabled individual. This bodes well for people with Asperger Syndrome (AS).
The first step in deciding whether or not to disclose is to identify the challenges that specifically impact your job performance. Write down how each challenge affects your work. Then note what accommodation is needed. Let’s say, for example, that your challenge is being able to prioritize tasks. The impact of this challenge might be that you spend too much time on non-critical tasks and miss important deadlines. Your accommodation need might be a daily meeting with your supervisor to set priorities.
If you decide to disclose, prepare a strategy in advance. Simply saying something like, “I have Asperger Syndrome and can’t multitask” is a poor approach because it puts the burden on your employer to find a solution. If you are proactive in suggesting reasonable accommodations, there is a greater likelihood that they will be implemented.
Keep your disclosure statement short, simple and to the point. Do not go into a long explanation of the history of Asperger Syndrome, scientific theories about its cause, or all of the ways that someone can be affected. Instead, summarize the condition in 1 or 2 sentences, state your challenges, and list the specific accommodations that you believe will address them.
For example, Andy explained, “I have a neurobiological condition called Asperger Syndrome that makes it hard for me to remember oral instructions. I need written instructions to learn the proper procedure for this task.” Kelly, who has Nonverbal Learning Disorder, said, “NLD is like having dyslexia when it comes to remembering times and dates. I need someone to review my appointments with me every morning and help me schedule the week.”
Be sure that you disclose to the human resources department in addition to disclosing to your supervisor so that your disability is “on the record.”
Sometimes accommodation requests can be made without disclosing the name of the disability. Developing a repertoire of explanatory statements may be enough to “neutralize” unexpected behaviors and smooth over misunderstandings. For example: “I’m hyper-sensitive to office noise and wearing headphones helps me concentrate,” or “I have a learning disorder that makes it hard for me to remember verbal instructions.”
The decision to disclose is personal and does not guarantee a positive outcome. It can also happen that an individual is simply not able to meet performance requirements, even when accommodations are made. However, there are also many cases when accommodations have resulted in job retention or a transfer to more appropriate positions within a company.
*For more information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit the website of The Job Accommodation Network.
Barbara Bissonnette is the Principal of Forward Motion Coaching and provides career development and advocacy services for individuals with Asperger Syndrome and NLD. For a free copy of the guide Workplace Disclosure Strategies, please send an email to ForwardMotion@charter.net.