To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

by Jillian Perkins-Marsh, alumni career counsellor

To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

With 1 in 5 people self-identifying with a disability globally and many more Canadians stating they face workplace challenges; the topic of accessibility in the workplace is relevant to nearly everyone when you include family and friends.

Mobility, sensory, cognitive, medical and mental health abilities …born with or acquired… the anxiety is real for many people when thinking about whether they should self-identify in the workplace to obtain accommodations. The fear of being treated differently, having their abilities questioned, or not knowing how to approach the subject with their boss are all concerns I hear from alumni.

It’s time to re-think and reframe the disability narrative from a deficit to a strength perspective. All employees need to have the required job competencies. Accommodations are meant to level the playing field, not provide advantages.

Often a formal accommodation plan is not needed as many employees will self-adjust the way they work. For instance, someone may write things down to remember them because of a generational preference or a learning disability.

Does it matter why the work needed adjusting? Personally, I don’t think so. What matters is that the work gets done.

Several years ago, one of my clients reported his employer being very impressed at his ‘typing’ speed using voice to text software. In his case, what started as an inexpensive software accommodation purchased for his learning disability resulted in becoming an option for everyone in his workplace — and I would guess less repetitive strain injuries in the long term!

Universal design in the workplace is an ideal approach to think about inclusion. When universal principles of design are applied to environments, processes and technology, individual accommodations are not needed. Rather, like in the speech to text example, the environment respects diverse abilities and becomes inclusive to everyone. To learn more about universal design workplaces, read MaRs’ report: Towards an Accessible Future: Ontario Innovators in Accessibility and Universal Design.

The launch of the Accessibility for Ontarians Act (AODA) was hailed by many for its wide-reaching plans for improving the lives of people with disabilities. Eight years later, many Canadians have newfound knowledge about inclusive environments and disability rights. Things are moving in the right direction though there is still room for improvement in many workplaces. Until universal design and greater awareness is more prevalent, knowing the advantages, disadvantages and timing of choosing whether to self-identify with a disability is important.

Tips about deciding if and when to self-identify:

Never: If you do not need an accommodation and there is no safety concern, you do not need to self-identify. Your personal information is like your credit card number- don’t share it unless you need to buy something.

At the time of application: I would recommend this option only if it relates to the job and/or offers an advantage. For example, working in a field where having lived experience is a bonus, or for an application to a program targeting persons who happen to have a disability, like Lime Connect.

Certain organizations, like Lime Connect require self-identification to access their exclusive job recruitment events, jobs and training. They connect talented people who happen to have disabilities to recruitment opportunities in companies such as IBM, PepsiCo, BMO, Google, among others.

At the time of the interview offer: If you need an accommodation for the interview process, let the employer know at the time you schedule the interview so that they can prepare in advance. Be prepared to share detailed information, such as any costs or booking process, if relevant.

During the interview: If you choose to self-identify during the interview, stay positive and strengths-focused. The downside is that you may have limited timing to explain, if there are questions. However, if an employer may notice a related issue, consider briefly addressing unspoken questions.

At the time of the job offer: If you know or suspect you will need some adjustments on the job, letting the employer know at time of offer clearly communicates your need. Also, it will help the employer co-ordinate so they can that things organized before you start work, if needed.

After the job begins: Sometimes, you may not realize there is an issue until you get more familiar with the day to day of the job. If an issue arises, review internal and/or union policies to support your conversation and schedule a meeting with your supervisor/HR to discuss. Don’t wait until after there is a performance issue to disclose. If so, you will not be protected by applicable laws.

When talking about your needs:

- Be short and concise. Explain what you need. Know your functional limitations and strengths related to your work tasks. You do not need to identify your diagnosis, but may be asked to provide medical documentation.

- Be able to answer any questions they may have. i.e. What is the general cost (if any)?

Sample Script: “I have an accommodation need that I would to discuss. I find it sometimes difficult to _____. I have managed it very well throughout other work and school when accommodated; in fact, I think it’s helped me develop ____skills. In this setting, I foresee I would need (describe type of accommodation)_and I am open to any suggestions you have as well.”

Does an employer have to provide accommodations?

According to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodation, unless it would cause ‘undue hardship’. A legal term that basically means that it would not be feasible to the company due to costs, or create health or safety risks.

If you feel you have been unfairly discriminated against, you may have recourse through the Human Rights Commission.

Inclusion in the workplace is not limited to disability. It is relevant to all, including a variety of underrepresented groups who have experienced historical barriers to employment. As a result, the Career Access Program for Students, or CAPS for short was created and is open to alumni up to 10 years. Interested? Meet with the Alumni Career Counsellor to discuss the benefits.

For Further Reading:

Canadian Business Sensability A great place to start learning about how an organization can be more inclusive and resources for job seekers.

Donovan, R. (2016) Return on Disability: Translate Different Into Value, 2016 Annual Report: The Global Economics of Disability

JAN Network — This US-based resource provides helpful information about identifying accommodations and processes.

MindsMatter A free assessment to discover ways to better support your employees.