Should I tell you about my disability? Will it impact how you perceive me? How you subsequently treat me? It’s a tough decision because I can’t know the impact in advance, and I can’t take it back. My disclosure might color every judgment you make and every action you take going forward.
Perhaps you’ll think I’m incapable of undertaking certain tasks or roles. Maybe you’ll feel obligated to engage me in decisions, activities, and opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise. Perhaps you’ll choose your words and actions more carefully around me. Do I want that special treatment, good or bad?
I’ve had to decide whether to disclose a disability for myself and for my son (with my wife and son’s involvement). My son and I have different disabilities, but they are both neurological and not immediately apparent to others. Disclosing is a scary undertaking. Gaining understanding from peers and accommodations from schools and workplaces is highly beneficial. Yet unequal and sometimes harmful treatment can be devastating. Perhaps you’re struggling with a similar decision. Let’s think it through together.
While this column focuses on disclosing disabilities, many of the same questions, concerns, and approaches apply to disclosing any personal trait.
In addition, this column is primarily about permanent disabilities but could also apply to temporary or situational ones.
The good and bad together
There are good things about disclosing your disability. You’re entitled to accommodations—not as a kind indulgence but as a formal obligation (in the U.S. under the ADA). When people know you have specific abilities and challenges, you can get mentorship and support from your coworkers and community. Thanks to your distinct perspective, you can be appreciated and included (instead of having your mysterious eccentricities tolerated or ridiculed). These advantages depend in part upon a manager and team that embraces diversity and inclusion (more on that shortly). Regardless, when you disclose your disability, you control the narrative—instead of others speculating or assuming—and you become part of a community that supports you and others like you.
Now let’s consider the downside of disclosure. If your manager and team fail to embrace diversity and inclusion, you could face discrimination and harassment. You could receive differential treatment, good and bad, without deserving it. You could be denied opportunities based on people’s biases (conscious or unconscious). You could be subject to labeling and tokenism—treated as an object rather than a person. Unfortunately, you could face these issues whether you disclose or not, due to your unusual behavior or having your disability otherwise revealed.
If you experience harassment, there are quick and confidential methods to report it. You can find them online within the internal sites for the human resources and legal. Please report harassment right away. Ignoring harassment allows it to persist, harming you and your co-workers. If nothing is done to correct the situation after you report it, you should work elsewhere at the company or at another company.
To be, or not to be
Based on the good and bad, when should you disclose your disability?
- When your disability is intrinsic to your identity. (“I am proudly autistic.”)
- When accommodations are essential to doing your job effectively. (You can’t leave them to chance or courtesy.)
- When your disability is obvious or off-putting. (You’ll get the downside, so you might as well disclose and receive some benefits.)
- When your manager and team foster an inclusive culture. (You can be your authentic self.)
When might you feel uncomfortable sharing your disability?
- When you have a strong preference to blend in.
- When your team has a low-trust, low-respect culture.
- When your leadership tolerates bullies.
- When your group shows pervasive signs of ableism or tokenism.
Observe that, aside from having a strong preference to blend in, the situations not to disclose are ones you might wish to avoid for your own mental health and well-being. To thrive, you should feel comfortable where you are. If you’re a manager, ensure your team is one where people feel safe disclosing and being their authentic selves.
For more on inclusion, ensuring everyone feels comfortable as their authentic selves, read Growth mindset and diversity.
Help me hence
If you choose to keep your disability private, you can still request accommodations informally. This approach can also help educate your teammates about formal accommodations in a way that’s easy to understand and provide. Basically, you frame your accommodations as personal requests.
- “I’m easily distracted, which is why I need a wall-facing desk and headphones.”
- “I need a few seconds to process questions, so please give me a moment.”
- “I tend to go on about stuff, so please interrupt me.”
- “I’m a little direct, so please don’t take it personally.”
- “I’m not good with subtleness, so please be direct and specific.”
This informal approach can be effective, but sometimes folks forget or simply wish you could be different. Be kind and empathetic as you remind people about your needs. “I know it can be difficult to work with me at times. I do struggle in some areas, so I appreciate your help and understanding. [Reminder of accommodation].”
If you’re unsure what accommodations to request, list activities associated with your disability that you find challenging and consider what might help. You can also consult with members of the disabled community, search the internet for “[your disability] accommodations,” and discuss ideas with your doctor and/or HR disability office.
For more on general communication, read You talking to me? Basic communication.
My marvel and my message
Knowing the downside of disclosure is found on teams you want to avoid, you may transfer to an inclusive team as needed, and then tell your manager and team about your disability. (Microsoft encourages you to switch teams if it makes you more productive.) How do you disclose?
Telling your manager about your disability is a formal process. Here’s an email template.
To: manager; HR rep
Subject: Disclosure of disability
I am formally disclosing that I have [disability], as documented in the attached diagnosis from my physician. I’m confident that I will perform well in my role with some practical accommodations.
- [example: Wall-facing desk and headphones]
- [Other accommodations]
Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.
Thank you for your support,
Telling your coworkers about your disability is more of an informal conversation. Here are some ideas for what you might say at a staff meeting or social opportunity.
Just want to let you know that I have [disability]. Like any other attribute, it has advantages and disadvantages.
On the plus side, I can focus deeply on a subject for hours. [Other superpowers].
On the minus side, I’m easily distracted, so I need my desk to face a wall and wear headphones. [Other challenges and accommodations].
I appreciate being part of a diverse team. Thanks for helping me be a great co-worker.
CRITICAL: You need to redisclose each time you get a new manager or team member to ensure your accommodations are maintained. Interruptions in accommodations often lead to slips in performance that can be hard to overcome (and can be particularly impactful in a review period).
For more on writing, read Writing for readers.
I meant well
If you choose to disclose your disability, even managers and co-workers who intend to be allies can misbehave at times, causing you pain and frustration. We all have unconscious biases and can behave badly without realizing it.
When someone treats you inappropriately yet is otherwise supportive, please treat them with grace. Talk with them one-on-one while the incident is still fresh in their mind. First, describe the facts of what happened without commentary. Then talk about how that made you feel. They may be apologetic or defensive, which is why it’s so important to leave out commentary and focus on inarguable things like facts and feelings.
Reassure your manager or co-worker that you know they respect you and didn’t intend harm. (Appealing to people’s better nature often becomes self-fulfilling, as does the opposite.) Then recommend alternative ways they might behave going forward under similar circumstances. They will appreciate your candor, understanding, and suggestions. Their caring for you and guilt about prior behavior will motivate them to be more conscientious.
For more on dealing with difficult people, read You’re no bargain either.
Whether ’tis nobler
It’s scary to disclose something deeply personal about yourself. However, the people who respond poorly are identifying themselves and their team as repugnant. Unless you have a strong preference to blend in (and your disability is subtle), you should consider disclosing to a team that embraces diversity (switching teams as necessary). Doing so provides you with assured accommodations, mentorship and connection to a supportive community, appreciation and inclusion, control over the narrative of who you are, and the opportunity to thrive as your authentic self. Remember to redisclose each time your management changes to avoid a break in accommodations that can impact your performance and rewards.
If your current team doesn’t embrace diversity, you can still attain accommodations by framing them as personal requests. If people forget, be kind and empathetic as you remind them—true also for co-workers who are aware of your disability. If people do or say hurtful things without malice, talk with them one-on-one about the inarguable: the facts of the situation and how they made you feel. Then recommend alternative behavior. If they continue to harass you, report them immediately for your own sake and the sake of your peers.
I’ve disclosed my dyslexia from the time it was diagnosed everywhere I’ve worked. It was my choice, and I’m glad I did it. For my young son with autism, the choice was harder. Kids can be awful to each other. Teachers are already overwhelmed. Yet, his disability was sufficiently evident and accommodations sufficiently necessary that we decided to disclose. We met with his classmates in the early years of elementary school and told them about his diagnosis, its advantages, its disadvantages, and how each of us has our own unique strengths and weaknesses. Not once was he bullied. In his senior year of high school, they voted him prom king.
Not every story is so heartwarming, but the story of your life is one you help write. Consider who you want to be and the kind of people you want to work alongside. Then choose to be that person and live that authentic life.
Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.