Should I Hide My Disability? What To Do When You Have No Clue
Maybe it was the torrential rain that kept many job hunters I know tethered to their computers. Or maybe it was job-seekers FOMO. Either way, the misery of job searching, particularly for people with disabilities who are chronically unemployed, has risen to new levels.
Friends and family continue to ask me if employers will frown on employment gaps on their post-pandemic resume, often caused by a disability. I get it—explaining a break in work history can feel almost surgically invasive. The wound never totally heals if you have a history of depression, PTSD, OCD or a learning disability, to name a few. It can rise up and challenge you at any time, resume be damned.
Every disabled person has a unique talent. But for many, a single question unites them: Even knowing my talent, should I check the disability box? The answer tends to fall along generational lines. For older generations, acknowledging any disability is completely unnecessary. It could do more good then harm, most Generation X and Boomers say. Millennials tend to be more open about talking about their mental health. The younger you are, the less stigma there tends to be. Hopefully. Let’s face it— your next boss isn’t likely to be 22, with innate coaching skills and a certification in Mental Health First Aid.
Should you take pains to hide your disability?( Again, common disabilities might include ADHD, a history of depression, dyslexia or autism.) There’s no one good answer and much depends on the job. You need to look at the facts.
Hiring talent can take a dramatic turn when the word disability enters the conversation—both positive and negative.
For a recruiter, disabled candidates offer a company the opportunity to be inclusive and find untapped talent.
In HR, the conversation will likely focus on compliance standards and culture fit.
Among the top leadership minds are opening. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to place informed bets which will change things like how work gets done, how constituents are served, how health services are delivered and how the talent experience is improved,” says Sean Morris, who’s COO of government and public services at Deloitte. Morris’ bird’s eye view plays out very differently on the ground.
MORE FOR YOU
Here’s advice on making your personal health a part of your hiring discussion from experts and people with lived experience:
Whether you decide to disclose or not, thoughtful reflection on how you would describe yourself can be helpful.
“Practice disclosing effectively with people whom you respect and trust, and who know you and your strengths well,” explains a guide called The 411 on Disability Disclosure. It was created (in 2005) by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. Although the booklet is dated, this advice is evergreen. Learn more of the latest information from their collaborator the Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Use short answers and easy-to-understand terms. Ditch the medical lingo and disability acronyms. Focus on the positives of how you work and what you have accomplished that relates to the job, even if the goals are ones you met at home or in an internship. Maybe you spent 2020 teaching yourself data analytics or learned to cook for large groups of people during the pandemic. Maybe you managed all things online and education as a single mom. It’s all good.
Take a page from the gay pride movement. Show your pride more often with an ever-widening audience. You should not need to hide. There is nothing wrong with you. For years, covering for the sake of your mental health was the norm. It protected you from bias, misunderstanding, bullying or being passed over for a job. Times are changing. Your stock is rising. Act like it. If you go out on the frontlines, take pride in the fact that you are cutting down years of unruly foliage and plantings that a generation hid behind. Your decision is one that will help hundreds of others you may never know.
Be Prepared to Fight
I recently wrote that for people with disabilities, the trick is to learn to rebel against an unfair system without losing an opportunity to share your talent. It’s a thin line to walk and I got a lot of responses to that one sentence. Matthew Provins, who identifies as a disabled, proud CEO in Progress wrote, “I was born with a physical disability called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita. My entire life I’ve fought for mine and my community’s rights.” Provins says rebelling against the system is not an option “for the majority of our disabled community cannot do so.”
I believe that people who can rebel, speak up and speak out have a responsibility to do so for others who can’t, which is why I write posts like this one often. On this Provins and I agree: “We are fighting tooth and nail to not be seen as subhuman. I’m different and that’s something I wear with pride. This fight is about community pride.” To find out more about Provin’s advocacy and interests, visit his site, NerdMonthly.
Whether you are expected to adapt to the workplace or vice versa, do it harmoniously. This is an infinite game, as Simon Sinek explains so well. You may win or lose some fights, but you shouldn’t stop fighting for equity. If you are older and returning to work after a past or pandemic-related disability, this is the time to do it. Why? The pandemic opened new conversation around benefits, flexible schedule options, invisible disabilities, mental health and personal development. I say that with a grain of salt: I am fully aware that in some sectors, nothing, including systemic bias, has changed. All you can do is look for the helpers and be one if you can. Look for hybrid work opportunities. Those indicate a leadership’s mindset and may include people who better understand your needs and skills.
Research by the authors of iRelaunch, shows that even if you have been out of the workforce for a decade or more, your peers will remember you. As you search for a job, think about your past work life. In your colleagues’ minds’ you are still that pioneer, positive force, or a passionate and talented individual, even if you don’t think of yourself that way. Take advantage of this previous-life glow, say the experts atiRelaunch.
A great compromise is to talk about what you need to work your best. Use general terms, not medical definitions. Ask for flexible hours two days a week for physical therapy. Discuss whether you can use your laptop instead of the company’s, since it’s already tricked out with the accessibility features you need. Whatever words you use, don’t go down a negative rabbit hole. It can take years to get out. I find it’s easier to focus on being relentlessly capable, curious and proud than it is to worry about my invisible disabilities. I’d go so far to as to suggest that talking about your disability or caregiving experience is a good idea. Maybe it has made you stronger, more flexible or required you to be more open-minded and patient. That’s an ability, not a disability.