To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

When graduate students are searching for jobs, should they disclose any disabilities they may have? Sue Levine explores the question.

October 31, 2016

“Every person, regardless of whatever different abilities they may have, can contribute …” Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics

Graduate students with disabilities make up approximately 8 percent of master’s students and 7 percent of doctoral candidates, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of students in higher education who identify as having some type of disability has increased over time due to increased services, transparency and legal protections. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights states that colleges and universities are required to provide appropriate academic adjustments as necessary to ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of disability.

During my years providing career coaching to graduate students, those with disabilities often have additional questions regarding their rights. One of the most common concerns students have is about disclosure during the job search process. The decision to disclose can have different implications depending on whether a student has a visible or nonvisible disability. Visible disabilities are usually identified by someone using an assistive device such as a service animal, a hearing aid, a wheelchair or a walking cane. Example of nonvisible disabilities include attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, hearing impairments, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and many others.

Disclosure is a personal decision, and you need to carefully weight the pros and cons in advance. Despite protections and increased awareness, discrimination and ignorance still exist. It is important to work with someone who can help you think through your options about disclosure as well as help you know your rights under the law. You may already be familiar with your rights as a graduate student, but you should have some understanding of employment law around disability and discrimination in order to make an informed decision.

First, let’s examine the legal definition of a disability. The Americans With Disabilities Act defines disability as:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • A record of such impairment; or
  • Being regarded of having such an impairment.

Second, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “If you think you will need a reasonable accommodation in order to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions, you should inform the employer that an accommodation will be needed.” However, you still have the right to an accommodation if you are hired, whether or not you disclose during the hiring process. And you are not required to disclose if you don’t want to.

Here’s an example of a disclosure decision-making process. I recently met with a student who was finishing up her doctorate in physics. I’ll refer to her as Nikki for the purposes of this article. She was preparing for an interview for a software engineering job at Company X. Nikki had previously disclosed to me that she has an autism spectrum disorder and has difficulty keeping answers to some interview questions brief and on target. She knew there would be a very good chance she would be asked the common interview question “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Questions I had Nikki consider included:

  • What are my accomplishments and what strengths do I bring to the position? How might I be able to stay focused on my capabilities during the interview?
  • What accommodations, if any, will I need to be successful during the interview?
  • Can I determine if the employer is inclusive and has a positive approach to recruitment of people with disabilities? Does the HR website address how they can accommodate people with disabilities throughout the hiring process?
  • If I choose to disclose, can I give specific examples of how I have previously used accommodations in graduate school or in a workplace and had successful outcomes?

After weighing the pros and cons, Nikki decided not to disclose. Instead, because she knew she had a tendency to give too much information about herself and her love for computer programming, she wrote a brief summary about herself that included her education and experience with programming. She wrote a script and practiced with me until she felt comfortable. She then transferred an outline of the script to her padfolio and brought it with her to refer to during the interview if necessary. Even if she didn’t need to use the notes, she felt that having them with her gave her more confidence and helped her focus.

Over all, job seekers should focus on skills and abilities but should also know their rights. I encourage you to use the resources of your career development office as well as the disability services office on your campus. Some additional external resources include:

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Sue Levine is associate director of the Center for Career and Professional Development at Brandeis University Graduate School of Arts and Science and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Sue Levine

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