Disclosing a Hidden Disability in the Employment Setting

By Trish Thoburn

Hidden disabilities refer to medical, mental, or physical conditions that may not be apparent from one’s appearance. Examples of hidden or invisible disabilities include autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, mental health issues, or chronic medical conditions.

The most likely reason job candidates or employees choose not to disclose a disability is because they fear it could prevent them from being hired or progressing in their career. They may also want to avoid any potential embarrassment or stigmatization associated with their disability, and to be treated equally in the workplace. They may believe that there is no reason or benefit to disclosing.

In working with clients with hidden disabilities, counselors can support them in considering possible advantages, in addition to the risks of sharing information regarding a disability. The most important reason to disclose is to ask for necessary accommodations to compete fairly in the pre-hiring stage and to be able to perform the essential functions of the job once hired. Disclosing a disability may lessen stressors that can arise if an applicant or employee feels they are being secretive, and it may allow managers and peers to offer support.

In some cases, characteristics of a disability might seem odd or raise concerns, but in the context of a disability, they make more sense. For example, a person with autism might have difficulty with eye contact and therefore, not be successful in a typical job interview. However, if the hiring manager understands this is a characteristic of autism, and making eye contact with others is not essential to performing the job, being open about the disability may be helpful in getting and maintaining employment.

Legal Issues

In order to support clients with disabilities, career counselors should be aware of the basic legal protections involving employment for persons with disabilities, which are covered under Title 1 of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under ADA, a covered disability includes a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

To be protected under the ADA, a person must:

Example: A person can perform all the essential functions of a receptionist position but cannot physically retrieve packages from a mailroom as predecessors have done on occasion. This would be considered a non-essential function of the job and the employer should make accommodations.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified person with a disability and requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for otherwise qualified applicants or employees unless it would create an undue hardship for the employer. Undue hardship is dependent on the size of the employer and the expense of the accommodation.

ADA and the Job Search

If covered under ADA, applicants may request reasonable accommodations in applying, interviewing or completing pre-employment screening or testing. An applicant is NOT required to disclose a disability before being hired, unless they are requesting accommodations in the pre-hire process.

Examples of reasonable pre-employment accommodations for hidden disabilities might include:

Starting the Job

Once hired, employers may ask medical and disability related questions as long as they ask them of all employees. If a disability is disclosed, they may ask for documentation of the disability.

Tips for Disclosure

If a client decides that it is in their best interest to disclose a disability, career counselors can assist by practicing or role-playing how the client will share the information, and who they should disclose to. Encourage clients to be brief and to the point regarding their disability and not to dwell on limitations. In some situations, simply stating the accommodations may be sufficient. Help the client consider what accommodations have been useful in the past and what they might need in the new work setting. Many employers are open to suggestions from the employee as to how best provide the accommodation.

Career counselors do not need to be experts on the ADA but should understand that clients may be protected under the act, and be prepared to help them understand their rights, decide if disclosure is in their best interest, and if so, help them prepare to disclose.









Trish ThoburnTrish Thoburn, M.Ed., Ed.S. is a human resources professional and career counselor. For the past 30 years, she has worked in corporate settings, higher education, and as a family advocate for persons with disabilities. As a parent of a son with autism, she is deeply interested in helping all people find their life’s work…however known. Trish can be reached at trishthoburn@gmail.com

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Linda Sollars   on Monday 04/01/2019 at 08:37 PM

Trish, This is an excellent article with so much important information! Your expertise is certainly represented here. I am sure others will find this very helpful. Congratulations!

Peter Thorsett   on Monday 04/01/2019 at 10:45 PM

Trish - Thank you for writing and sharing this article! A lot of great information in here on how to navigate handling hidden disabilities, as a job seeker, an employee, or as an employer. The additional resource links were especially helpful!

Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 04/02/2019 at 11:38 AM

Thanks for the excellent article and resources. One factor people with disabilities need to think about is that while disclosure should be confidential, in many workplaces this information will get out to other employees. People have to be prepared for this risk. I encourage people to assess the gossip factor in the culture of the workplace as part of thinking about disability disclosure. The gossip factor is how often employees talk about confidential information about their coworkers. In some workplaces this does not happen, but in others it is prevalent. If there is a strong gossip factor, people need to think about what could change in coworker relationships if they disclose and how they will respond to negative changes.

Linda Driver   on Friday 08/23/2019 at 04:39 PM

Disclosing a hidden disability in the employment setting is a personal decision. Considering the pros and cons, if the employer is aware of the disability, they make reasonable acccomodations and will actually reduce stressors for the employee. If the hidden disability is not disclosed, chances are circumstances will occur which the employer will not understand the employee's behavior or actions. Personally, I would share.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.