May 25, 2023
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The decision of whether or not to share your diagnosis with an employer or potential employer is personal. Here’s what to consider.
Does your workplace know about your chronic condition? If you don’t feel safe or comfortable disclosing your disability at work, you aren’t the only one.
In fact, a 2020 survey by Accenture revealed that 76% of employees with disabilities did not disclose their disability at work. This survey may not encompass everyone who lives with chronic conditions that can affect their ability to work.
I’ve had a good experience being vocal about my chronic illness. In fact, doing so has actually helped me get more work (like writing this article, for example!). But unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone.
Take a look at some of the pros and cons of disclosing your chronic condition at work. Plus, get some tips on how to start the conversation if you decide to disclose.
I’m a full-time freelance writer and content marketer, and when I first struck out, hoping to make it in this career, I didn’t breathe a word about my chronic illness online. Sure, maybe you could find a few cryptic posts if you dug way back on my public Instagram, but otherwise, my lips were sealed. Illness? What illness? That was none of my clients’ business — even though, ironically, my health was the reason I became a freelancer in the first place.
Over time, however, my health got worse. And then it got worse again. And again. Even though I worked remotely, it became harder to hide the constant symptoms, appointments, and procedures.
I also discovered that I was becoming more passionate about ministry and advocacy work in the chronic illness and disability space. I wanted to be vocal online about what I was living with. Otherwise, I felt like anything I shared was fake and inauthentic.
So, little by little, I dipped my toe in, slowly becoming more open on my personal social media and in online conversations about my medical issues. Before long, I discovered that by billing myself as a “professional patient,” I could demonstrate to healthcare clients that I understood their world. I could speak to their target audience because I was their target audience.
I remember deciding to fully go for it when I was on a video call with a home health company that needed a writer. I told them that I use a home health company myself and held up the IV tubing I was connected to as proof. I got the gig.
Today, I make no apologies: My website tells clients very plainly that I am living with a chronic illness. But the reason I feel comfortable doing this is because I work for myself. If a client decides they don’t want to work with me because of my health, that’s no big deal. There are plenty of other fish in the sea. And I’m financially stable enough that losing one client isn’t a make-or-break deal.
I understand, however, that this isn’t the case for everyone. There are a number of very valid reasons why you might not feel comfortable talking about your condition or disability with your employer.
I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Everyone’s medical situation is different, everyone’s work situation is different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer that we can prescribe for this question. However, I do want to bring up a few points that may be helpful to consider if you’re trying to decide whether or not to disclose.
No. You’re not required to disclose your illness or disability to an employer. You’re also not required to disclose this information on your resume or cover letter when you’re applying for a job.
This is thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which gives people with disabilities the same workplace rights as any other employee. The ADA states that you can disclose or not disclose at any time. What’s more, employers cannot ask you if you’re disabled or quiz you about your medical history. So, if you would rather not disclose, that’s completely OK.
However, it’s important to note that if you’re planning to ask for accommodations at work, you’ll need to share about your condition or disability with your employer. You cannot receive ADA protection unless people are aware you have a disability. But once you disclose, your employer must provide “reasonable accommodation” — changes to the work environment that allow you to do the essential functions of your job.
What if you disclose your disability and are then fired from your job? What are your rights in that situation? If you’re qualified to do the job you were hired for, you cannot be fired because of a disability (with a couple of exceptions). Your employer must move you to a different position if you’re unable to do your job. If you’re wrongfully terminated because of your disability, you may be able to get help from an attorney to file a claim against your former employer.
If your disability is visible — for example, you use a wheelchair, and you’re working in an office rather than from home — you might not have a choice about whether to disclose. It will be obvious that you’re disabled. However, you can still choose how much you’d like to share. And for people with invisible illnesses or disabilities, it may be completely up to you whether to disclose.
Here are a few pros and cons of this decision.
You could potentially benefit from sharing about your disability. By disclosing your disability, you may be able to receive workplace accommodations that could make your job easier to complete. Examples of common accommodations include:
You will also be legally protected under the ADA. And as I’ve discovered, in some cases, sharing about your disability might actually open up new opportunities for you to get work.
Madison (a pseudonym used) currently works remotely as an executive function coach. She lives with multiple chronic conditions that affect her both physically and mentally. One of these diagnoses is autism.
“At times, I’ve regretted not speaking up about my specific diagnoses, particularly at times when I’ve partnered with companies creating autism resources,” Madison says.
She explains how she’s watched her coworkers share about their neurodivergence and get the opportunity to write from personal experience — “anything from writing autobiographies, to getting assigned more article topics, because those living with autism can bring a slightly different perspective to the table when writing,” she says.
Since Madison didn’t tell her employer that she was also autistic, she wasn’t given these extra assignments.
If it’s out in the open, you may feel less stressed about keeping the “secret” of your condition. Plus, by being open about your disability or condition, you’re helping create a more safe, inclusive environment for other employees to come forward about what they’re living with, too.
Unfortunately, sharing your disability might open you up to discrimination or infantilization. Workplace discrimination against those with chronic conditions and disabilities can look like:
This discrimination can all too easily wear you down and affect your mental health. Even if you’re “only” dealing with microaggressions, this can still take a toll.
We all know that chronic illness is hard for people (like coworkers) to understand. When people know that you’re sick, you’re opening yourself up to a million “have you tried…” or “my aunt healed her autoimmune disease by…” conversations every day. And frankly, that’s just not something that’s fun to deal with, especially if you’re trying to focus on work.
Yes, you’re legally protected under the ADA. But sadly, this doesn’t completely stop discrimination from happening. At the end of the day, if you simply don’t feel safe or comfortable risking disclosure, that’s a 100% valid decision. No one can force you to do anything you don’t want to do.
If you decide to share your disability with your employer, prepare and plan ahead of time if possible. Don’t focus on your limitations, but do share your needs, and be ready to suggest reasonable accommodations that would help.
Typically, if you’re ready to disclose your disability at your current job, the best person to speak with is likely the human resources (HR) department and/or your immediate supervisor. They can help provide accommodations and they’ll appreciate receiving more context to help them fairly judge your performance.
If you’re going through interviews with a potential employer and want to disclose up front, you can tell the HR manager or whoever is interviewing you.
You can disclose in a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation or via email. During the conversation, share some general information about your chronic condition or disability. Explain how your disability affects your ability to complete tasks that are required for your job. Then tell the person why you’re disclosing and what kind of accommodations you think you may need.
As long as you’re truthful and continue to work hard, you have disclosure protections that entitle you to have information about your disability treated confidentially and respectfully.
At the end of the day, deciding whether or not to disclose your diagnosis should be taken on a case-by-case basis. You would be able to get accommodations you may need, create a safer environment for all, and potentially receive more opportunities. But you could also be opening yourself up to discrimination or harassment.
These are all considerations to keep in mind as you decide whether disclosing is right for you.
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