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How to react when an employee discloses a disability

Disclosing in a professional setting can be fraught. Here’s how I hope my employer (or prospective employer) will respond.

How to react when an employee discloses a disability
[Photos: Artystarty/iStock; Thien Dang/Unsplash]
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One time in a job interview, the hiring manager asked me to tell them about myself. “Tell me about yourself” always feels like a loaded question. What, and how much, am I supposed to share? I told them about my time in law school, the areas of practice I was interested in, and a bit about my work as an author and writer. The hiring manager was intrigued about what I wrote about, and I mentioned I wrote about autism and disability from a first-person lens. The next question was why I didn’t explicitly mention I was autistic in my résumé.

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Another time, I was specifically interviewed for a position because of my disability (we were introduced through a mutual connection), and the person in charge of hiring was asking for advice because they had a neurodivergent child. I wanted to talk about my career goals and aspirations, unsure how to avoid giving advice about supporting a young person I had never met. 

How and when I (or other disabled job candidates and employees) disclose disability is a highly individualized, personal decision. We rehash the conversation over and over in our minds trying to figure out the best ways to advocate for ourselves. There are several reasons someone might share they have a disability at work: They need a reasonable accommodation that they are entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act; to explain a gap in work history; they are seeking acceptance from colleagues; and want to bring their full, authentic selves to work. 

But how that conversation goes can vary greatly. It can go the way my past experiences did, full of curiosity and additional, often unexpected questions that might not be related to the reason behind the disclosure. It could be a manager is listening intently, thinking about their liability, or staying silent trying to process new information.

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There might not be one perfect way to react, but there are four things that are extremely helpful to keep in mind after someone chooses to disclose a disability to you:

Listen

Sometimes, a disclosure conversation happens in a one-on-one meeting, a diversity and inclusion meeting, or during the interview process. It might be planned, such as a meeting with HR to begin a formal accommodations process, or it might be unplanned, such as if you’re asking why work wasn’t completed on time and an employee shares a cognitive impairment as part of their explanation.

The first goal is to listen, and ask yourself: Why is this person sharing this information with me?” Is it because of an existing problem, to build trust, to bring authenticity to the work environment, to ask for help, or another reason completely? Keep the “why” in the back of your mind so you can best be supportive when it’s time for you to react. Consider whether it will be appropriate to offer modification or accommodation solutions, or direct them to the most helpful person in HR. 

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Don’t be judgmental

One of the things that can catch us off guard is judgment, which often takes the form of additional questions, or seemingly well-intentioned microaggressions. Some of the most frustrating things that I’ve heard when explaining my disability to an employer are comments like: “But you don’t look autistic,” “I never would have guessed if you didn’t tell me,” or making a comparison between my autism and that of another autistic person, saying I am “higher functioning” (which is harmful since it denies me support I may need, and denies the other person opportunities because of their perceived deficits). This is a common experience for many people with “invisible” disabilities that have a degree of passing or masking involved.

Depending on your relationship (personal and professional), the person might be comfortable answering follow up questions, but err on the side of caution when it comes to asking for additional personal information.

Disclosure at work is a vulnerable thing, often requiring planning, self-advocacy, and bracing ourselves for any type of reaction. A microaggression or judgmental response can put a disabled employee in an awkward position, deciding whether to silently note the slight or to advocate for themselves more forcefully. For instance, after introducing myself to a new colleague at work, they told me how inspirational my story was and how they’d never have guessed I was autistic. I felt like I had to smile and say “thank you,” despite their ableist remarks.

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In contrast, responding in a positive way allows me to share freely and obtain support if needed. This usually takes the form of a simple remark along the lines of “thank you so much for telling me” to affirm trust, or an “I’m glad you shared that with me” or saying something that conveys empathy or that maybe this additional information explained something or clarified something for you. 

Offer support, if appropriate

If you really aren’t sure what to do in the moment, that’s okay. Sometimes listening and providing assurance is enough. If you don’t have all the answers, regroup and know it’s okay to let them know you’ll get back to them. You might be able to connect the employee with someone in human resources who has more answers. If you’re with a small business or there is no HR department, one of the best resources out there for disability accommodation support and solutions is The Job Accommodation Network

When offering support, follow the lead of the person disclosing and try not to fall into the well-intentioned trap of benevolent ableism, where you offer help when it is neither wanted nor needed. What makes this so tricky is it robs people of agency and the ability to make their own decisions.To follow our lead, ask how you can be supportive. The answer might surprise you. Perhaps the person disclosing will ask to launch a formal accommodations process, or they could use the chance to launch a conversation about how they work best.

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When I disclose my disability, I never really know what to expect from person to person, but every show of allyship from a manager always makes me feel empowered and infinitely less nervous.

On the receiving end, you should feel empowered as well. The additional information you receive from a disclosure can help you ensure that your colleague has the tools they need to succeed and feels included as part of the team. 


Haley Moss is an autistic attorney, author, and neurodiversity advocate.

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