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Disability Disclosure: An Introduction

Learn more about how and why people with disabilities might choose to disclose a disability in the workplace.

Disclosing a disability in an employment setting is not always a straightforward decision for applicants or employees. A study of workplace practices (PDF) found that the culture and climate of an organization informs how willing workers are to share information about their disability at their workplace. The study also suggested that when employees feel supported and believe they are treated fairly, they are more likely to disclose their disabilities.

What is Disability Disclosure?

When an applicant or employee voluntarily shares information about a disability or health condition with their employer, they are disclosing a disability. Applicants or employees typically disclose their disability or health condition when requesting an accommodation, but there may be other reasons as well.

What is the Difference Between Self-Identification and Disability Disclosure?

Self-identification is a confidential and voluntary process that allows the employer to ask applicants or employees if they identify as a person with a disability via a pre-approved form. Self-identification information is generally used by organizations in aggregate to measure progress toward disability inclusion goals, while disclosure is related to one individual person. Learn more about self-identification from the NILG Information Center: Self-Identification or visit the 411 on Disability Disclosure.

Did you know that some cities, states, and towns require affirmative action? For practical tips on implementing affirmative action, review the City of Madison, Wisconsin’s Best Practice Resource Guide for Affirmative Action Planning.

Why Do People Disclose Disabilities at Work?

Understanding the reasons for disclosing disability at work is an important part of creating a disability-inclusive workplace culture. Many companies actively work to ensure employees feel they can be their authentic selves at work. These companies encourage open discussions on employee identity with employee resource groups (ERGs) or by sharing stories on recruiting or diversity pages.

People may disclose a disability for several reasons:

What Factors Impact the Choice to Disclose a Disability?

Disclosing a disability in an employment setting is a legally protected choice. This decision may be different for each person depending on several factors, including whether the person’s disability is apparent or non-apparent. Some people, such as a wheelchair user or a blind person who uses a cane or service animal, have disabilities that are immediately apparent. Others have non-apparent disabilities, such as autism, learning disabilities, chronic health conditions, or mental health conditions. It is important to note that non-apparent disabilities may impact the people who have them just as much as apparent ones do, and people with non-apparent disabilities are also protected by disability nondiscrimination laws and entitled to workplace accommodations. 

For applicants and employees with non-apparent disabilities, disability disclosure is a choice and one that is often difficult to make. Many people with disabilities feel that the decision to disclose a disability at work is risky. A 2023 study by Accenture reported that employees who choose not to disclose are concerned that they will be denied growth opportunities or find themselves in unfulfilling roles. A study of employment issues for people with disabilities found several factors pose a barrier to disclosure, including:

  • Risk of being fired or not hired
  • Concern that employers would focus on the disability
  • Risk of losing health care benefits
  • Concern that promotional opportunities would be impacted
  • Risk of being treated differently by a supervisor or coworker

This study also indicated that people with disabilities worry that disclosure could change the way they are viewed at work or impact their ability to succeed professionally. The study also found that when respondents with non-apparent disabilities disclosed a disability at work, 10% had immediate negative consequences and 25% experienced long-term negative consequences.

What Role Do Employers Play in Disability Disclosure?

Whether you are a manager, organizational leader, or human resources (HR) representative, when an applicant or employee discloses a disability, the first and most important task is to listen respectfully to what is being said. Employers and their representatives need to remember the following when someone discloses a disability:

  • Start with the basics. Ensure all applicants and employees are aware of the availability of accommodations. Help them understand the process to request an accommodation or learn more about accommodation options.
  • Lead with a question. Simply asking an employee “What do you need to succeed on the job?” is a great way to demonstrate your willingness to discuss the topic of accommodations and your organization’s commitment to inclusion.
  • Do not make assumptions. Listen to the information the applicant or employee is providing without judgment. Make decisions based on the facts presented and the person’s needs and preferences. Be wary of letting generalizations, stereotypes, labels, or prejudices about disability impact the decisions you make regarding the applicant or employee’s ability to perform the work. EARN’s Working Together page has additional information about this important topic.
  • Apply workplace policies fairly. Provide the same opportunities to all employees, regardless of their disability status. For example, if you offer an opportunity to travel to a conference for employees, do not assume that an employee who uses a wheelchair will not be able to attend. These assumptions can limit training and promotional opportunities for the employee. Remember that disclosure of disability should not have an impact on assignments or evaluation of performance in the workplace.
  • Keep all health information confidential. When someone discloses a disability at work, consider the information to be confidential and treat it the same as any other confidential information about an employee. 
  • Avoid intrusive questions. Avoid asking questions about a person’s disability that may be considered intrusive. A disclosure conversation is not the time to ask personal questions of the applicant or employee. However, you may need to ask the person if they are disclosing to request an accommodation. If so, you will need to engage in the interactive accommodation process.

Learn more in the 411 on Disability Disclosure: Employer Edition.