LivAbility Magazine

By Susan Webb

When applying for a job, the decision about when and how to disclose a disability is confusing for many job seekers. This article answers questions frequently asked.

Am I required to tell an employer I have a disability?

Generally, no. The exception is if you need the job modified in some way so that you can perform the essential functions of the job. Even then you should stick to what modification needs to be made, not a description of your disability or a medical diagnosis. How to communicate when needing an accommodation would fill an entire issue of LivAbility. But one example is that you might need more frequent breaks during the workday to test your sugar level due to diabetes. You will request the accommodation by saying, “I need three breaks during the day instead of two to accommodate a disability.” You would not say, “I have diabetes and have to check my sugar levels during the day. I need more breaks.”

This might seem to be a difference without distinction, but the first statement is specific in that it asks for three breaks. The second statement might cause your employer to think you are requesting a break every hour, resist the request, and thus causes friction between you. The first statement focuses on the job (number of breaks) and not on a medical diagnosis (diabetes). Focusing on the job tasks keeps the focus on the exact action to be taken without forcing the employer to make assumptions based on your medical condition.

Be prepared, however, in this case for the employer to ask for validation of the condition, often from your doctor. Your doctor’s note should only validate your request for the additional break and not disclose medical information.

But the employer needs to know I have a disability. Isn’t it dishonest not to tell her?

Would you tell her you have trouble paying your bills because your ex-husband ran up a bunch of debts before the divorce? Of course not, because it is a personal matter and not something she can do anything about anyway. In fact, discussing your disability, like any other personal matter, might cause an employer to make assumptions due to her own experience that is not at all related to your specific disability.

But if he asks me if I have a disability and I say no, can’t he fire me later for lying on my application?

No. There are very limited circumstances under which an employer is allowed to ask if you have a disability. Even when it is legitimate for him to ask it is always voluntary as to whether you choose to disclose. You cannot be retaliated against later if you do disclose it, such as when you ask for an accommodation.

I often see the question on applications. I thought it was illegal for them to ask?

Usually it is illegal. But in some cases they are required to ask, and it is to your advantage to say yes. Here are the types of employers who may ask:

Federal, State, and Local Government: You will be given hiring preference if you disclose having a disability for a government job. In this case, they will ask you if you fall into three different categories: intellectual disability, severe physical disability or psychiatric disability.

Federal Contractors: These are for-profit and non-profit companies that have a contract with the federal government to provide goods and services. These employers represent 22% of the workforce. They have an affirmative action obligation to hire qualified individuals with disabilities in all job categories with a goal toward 7% having a disability. In this case, they must ask you before they offer you the job, after they offer it to you, and again periodically after you work for them. They may only ask if you have a disability, nothing about what it is.

Employers who have a diversity goal to hire qualified candidates from all sorts of groups, including disability: Some employers are committed to hiring minorities and people with disabilities because they believe it enhances their workforce. Such employers may not ask until after a conditional job is offered and only whether it exists, not what it is.

Some tips to remember: It is always voluntary to disclose.

You never should be asked more than just the general categories and not specifics about your diagnosis.

If you disclose, your disclosure is kept separate from the rest of your application. It is not part of your personnel file. Typically, the information is kept in a human resources or affirmative action office. Your hiring manager will likely never know you disclosed.

Although disclosure can give you preference, you still must have the basic qualifications for the job, i.e. knowledge, skills, ability, education and experience.

If I feel like my boss or co-workers are picking on me in some way because of my disability, especially if I do not disclose, what should I do?

In small companies you do not have much recourse other than to tactfully try to work it out. But even then you should only talk about your disability in general terms and how it affects your behavior or performance on the job. In larger companies, there is often a human resources department you can ask for help. As a last resort, however, if you truly are discriminated against and the employer has more than 15 employees, you may file a formal complaint against them by contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What if I need an accommodation, but I do not know what would work?

You can discuss it with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). You can contact them at or 800-526-7234 (voice) or 877-781-9403 (TTY).

Contributor Section
Susan Webb

Susan Webb