Should I disclose my disability to an employer? An Interview with Ward Newmeyer

There are several hundred students at Dartmouth who are bright, talented, capable and also have a disability. Deciding when, how and where to disclose a disability in a job search is a personal decision and can feel awkward. (I say this based on my own personal experience which I will share in a later post.)

In an attempt to answer common questions not often asked, Career Services has partnered with the office of Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to create a special series on how to tackle this issue.  I recently sat down with Ward Newmeyer, the Director of Student Accessibility Services to get suggestions on how to approach a disability during the job search process. Here are my questions and his paraphrased answers:

What is the formal definition of a disability?

As defined by the American’s with Disabilities Act,  “[d]isability means, with respect to the individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”

When should a student disclose a disability?

For some people it would make sense to disclose a disability before an interview, for other people it would make sense not to disclose it until after a job offer is made, and for other people there might not be any particular reason to disclose it at all. There are a lot of variables that contribute to deciding whether to and when to reveal a disability, for example how the nature of the job matches up with the person’s disability circumstances or whether or not the reputation of the corporation is that it tends to embrace people with disabilities. The extent to which the disability may interface with the job may give students more incentive to bring it up earlier if, for example, you might need an accommodation to demonstrate how you perform an activity on the job.

Are there any benefits for the student about disclosing?

When applying for a job that is competitive, everybody looks for an angle to indicate how they would add some dimension that would be attractive to the employer and to show them that they are worthy of consideration even though there may be 20 other qualified people competing for the same job. And often times the experience of living with a disability in our society gives people some dimensions that others do not think about until we point it out to them. Therefore, there might be some advantage in saying something about how a person’s disability has given him or her some depth of perception and fresh perspective. Certain people with a disability have over time figured out creative ways to solve problems because they were unable to solve them in the standard ways, and that experience can be valuable to a lot of employers. However, a lot of people will not think of that angle about a disability because we live in a society that is always pointing out the negative aspects of having a disability and rarely pointing out the positives. This angle gives the prospective employee the opportunity to point out to the employer what they can bring to the workforce that other people who do not have that kind of experience cannot. Also, if a person’s on-paper record doesn’t seem so competitive, possibly due to disability-related reasons, revealing a disability might be important because it is the only way to explain away any problem they might have had with previous employment.

Bottom line: There is no clear answer. All different variables come into play when a person is deciding whether to reveal and when to reveal.

Are there any incentives for employers to hire candidates with disabilities?

Public employers, especially the Federal government, are often very encouraged to have a healthy, representative sample of people with disabilities among their workforce. So if they haven’t reached that, they may have some incentive to accept applicants with disabilities. Also, if a private sector employer is a federal contractor, they experience similar incentives. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act is a part of a civil rights law that requires employers that contract with the Federal government to assure equal opportunity employment for people with disabilities.

Who can help me figure out when and how to disclose a disability?

The Student Accessibility Services office (SAS) can provide help with this, but it’s your call on where you want to start. If you don’t know where to go and feel uncomfortable, you may want to start by having a conversation with the staff and faculty who know you best. You can also get help from staff and faculty from your academic advisor to Career Services, The Academic Skills Center, Dick’s House, and the Undergraduate Advising Office.

One final piece of advice: Many people with disabilities have figured out creative ways to solve problems. Think through what the gifts of your disability are, and think through how to best articulate them. It is one of the jobs of the SAS office to make sure students are aware of all the variables to consider and think through so that students can weigh the pros and cons and come to their own decision.

Stay tuned for our next installment in this series: My disability, my strategy.