Let’s be real: talking about disability at work is difficult. There are various biases, assumptions, and stigmas that impact disabled people, some of which can have extreme consequences for someone’s experience at work. Many mistakenly assume that disabled people aren’t as capable as their non-disabled peers – a common misconception leads many people to miss out on the incredible ingenuity and creativity that disabled people bring to the workplace. While some might assume that disabled people need more support in the workplace (and they sometimes do), it’s more useful to reframe this as needing specific support, something every member of a team needs.
But getting those specific supports can be especially taxing and terrifying. It often requires disclosing that one has a disability, which is a decision that can lead to ableism and workplace discrimination. But in order to get the support that we often need, we must disclose our disability to at least our manager and perhaps also others while navigating labyrinthine corporate policies and processes. This is, of course, if these policies even exist for accommodations or workplace adjustments in the first place.
However, disclosure can also reap enormous benefits. From being more able to access the appropriate accommodations or adjustments to ensure you’re supported at work, to simply feeling like you can be more authentic, disclosure can be a powerfully affirmative experience.
If you’re somebody with a disability who is considering disclosing your disability at work, I hope this blog can help you navigate this intimidating process. As a leader who specializes in building inclusive and equitable workplaces, and who lives with Bipolar 1 and other disabilities myself, here is my best advice for how to disclose your disability at work.
Preparing to disclose
Without question, the first thing that you should do if you’re considering disclosing your disability is to check the policies your employer has crafted to support employees with disabilities. While you’re legally protected from discrimination whether or not a company has a specific policy in place, I’d consider these policies the minimum standard you want to see. I would look for:
Anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, as well as documented procedures for enforcing them.
Anti-retaliation clauses outlined within the general protections
Accommodations or adjustments policies, which you’re legally entitled to receive regardless of whether a policy is in place. If a company didn’t have these policies and processes in place, there is a greater potential risk in disclosure. In such a case, I would advise you to speak to legal counsel before proceeding.
Next, it’s important to clearly and deeply reflect on why you want to disclose in the first place, and what you hope to get out of the disclosure. Is it a specific accommodation or adjustment to your working conditions? Empathy from your manager? The ability to be more authentic at work or to build community? Your manager is best positioned to help with some of those, but not all of them. For example, if you’re looking to build community, your company’s employee resource groups (ERGs)or other external groups might be a better fit. Being clear about your hopes and expectations will help you make a specific, concrete ask – which can greatly improve the chances that you’ll get what you’re seeking. If you need more support, this step is a great opportunity to workshop your ask with your care team or community if you have access to one.
Now, about that community. Disclosure is a big deal and can be a highly emotional experience. You don’t have to go through it alone. It’s critical that you build external support, ideally from those with a similar (or at least disabled) experience. If your company has a disability ERG, this might be a great place to start. But if it doesn’t, you should consider looking outside for organizations and communities that bring disabled people together.
Disclosing your disability
As you’re preparing to disclose, know that there are approaches that can maximize the chance that you get what you’re looking for. Plan to use a 1-on-1 meeting with your manager to do this. Let your manager know ahead of time, with something as simple as “I have something personal I’d like to discuss in our 1-on-1” This will allow your manager to prepare for a potentially heavier conversation.
Then during disclosure, be clear and direct. Try something like:
“Hey NAME, I’d like to talk to you about the fact that I have a disability, and am looking for ________ from (you | the team | the company). Is that a type of support you’re willing and able to provide?”
Here, it can be helpful to let your manager know that you’re happy for HR to be looped in to support, as they’re more likely to be versed in the policies and procedures around accommodations or disability support. While you should expect your manager to be supportive, don’t be surprised if they’re also a bit awkward. A lot of people are uncomfortable or don’t know how to discuss disability (even if they should!), so it’s good to be prepared so that you can focus on getting what you need.
Addressing accidental disclosure
Now, let’s say that you’ve accidentally disclosed your disability. Maybe someone saw a mobility aid on a Zoom call, or (like me) you had a manic episode at work. It’s absolutely understandable that you may have some strong emotions around what happened, and you may also potentially be hesitant to address it. But it can be important to address – at least with your manager – particularly if it relates to a need for additional support or if you had an impact on others you need to address or repair. You don’t need to make it a big event, but it can be useful (again in a 1-on-1) to provide context.
“Hey NAME, I would like to provide you with an explanation for _________. I have _________ disability and it impacts me __________. I (do / don’t) need __________ from you given that.”
You’ve got this
While disclosing your disability at work can be unfamiliar and daunting, it can also be an extremely empowering decision that enables you to be more open at work and receive the space and support you need to thrive. Moreover, by taking this bold step and sharing your story, you’re helping your organization advance in its journey towards being truly Culture First. Everybody plays a part in building a better world of work where people from all backgrounds can be authentic and supported, and your disclosure may have a resounding effect on the experiences of all employees at your company.