Common wisdom states that you should never disclose a disability on a job application. In fact, one study found that 75% of respondents said the risk of not being hired was enough to prevent them from ever disclosing their disabilities. Mention disability on a job application, career advice so often says, and watch your resume slip quietly to the bottom of the slush pile.
Much as we’d like to claim otherwise, there’s a nugget of uncomfortable truth buried in this approach. One of the reasons the unemployment rate is disproportionately high among people with disabilities is that there are fewer opportunities. No law or regulation is powerful enough to change minds, and employer attitudes still act as a roadblock for prospective candidates. Organizations like DECSA are continually working to abolish harmful myths about disability in the workplace, but our reach isn’t limitless and the wider world has a long way to go before the field is truly equal.
All is not bleak, however. Positive messaging about inclusive hiring, especially from influential corporations like Starbucks and Tim Hortons is helping employers and candidates realize that disability and employment need not be treated like oil and water. Equal opportunity employers are reaping the benefits of diverse hiring practices, encouraging everyone else to take the leap.
So, given the many success stories and the widespread promotion of disability awareness, there has never been a safer time to disclose a disability early in the job application process. It may not be the best decision in every case, but disclosure should no longer be universally discouraged.
You may well ask: “Why should I take the risk? Just because it might not jeopardize my career doesn’t mean it will help, right?” James Gower, who has Cerebral Palsy, explains that in specific situations, disclosure is not only safe, but advantageous. Choosing to disclose his disability on an application form allowed him to speak freely and extensively about the disability-related skills he had learned, such as adaptive sports, which may not have been strictly job-related but certainly demonstrated his flexibility and perseverance. James also points out that desirable traits, such as self-awareness, are sometimes enhanced by the very presence of disability. In this way, people with disabilities can give themselves a competitive edge in a time when standing out in the crowd is more important than ever.
One of DECSA’s Communications Specialists describes how disclosing her visual impairment in her cover letter actually bolstered her application:
It took a tremendous amount of courage to disclose my disability before the interview. I’d never done so before, and it went against all the advice I’d ever been given. I knew DECSA was open to candidates with disabilities, though, so I used that openness to give my application a memorable touch. I referenced my own personal advocacy in the disability community, linked to my blog, and illustrated how my intimate knowledge of one of DECSA’s client groups would help me serve their organization exceptionally well. I can’t say whether this improved my chances, but it really cut down on the pre-interview jitters—how will they react when they find out, and so on—and it definitely didn’t hurt my chances, either. I had all the right credentials and great references, but I think that disclosure may have given my application particular relevance.
Pre-disclosure can serve as more than an application boost, though. There may be cases when revealing a disability before the interview stage is necessary. For example, if a learning disability will affect skills testing or any other part of the interview process, it would be imprudent not to disclose it beforehand so that proper accommodations can be made. As James Gower points out, those with physical disabilities may require special accommodations at the interview, such as a suitable chair or an accessible entrance. Failing to disclose may result in avoidable anxiety and stress for both candidates and interviewers.
Most of the time, disability is just a personal trait like any other, and has little or nothing to do with the application process. Disclosing a disability when it’s irrelevant to the job search is unnecessary and even risky, so it’s best to exercise caution when doing so. That being said, it’s time we move away from a global practice of concealment and secrecy, toward a world where disability is neither feared nor penalized. Ideally, we at DECSA would like to see an open, inclusive application process for every career path. Until then, evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis, and see where your job search takes you.
DECSA is an inclusive organization that celebrates and promotes diversity in all its forms. If you have a disability and would like assistance with your job search, contact us.