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Talking About Invisible Disabilities

Invisible disabilities include fibromyalgia, epilepsy and many other conditions. Use this guide to help you decide about disclosing your invisible disability.

When you have an invisible disability, you’re living with a chronic condition that can’t be seen. The list of invisible disabilities is long, ranging from fibromyalgia and learning disorders to epilepsy, mental illness, heart disease and many more.

A significant number of people in the workplace have an invisible disability. Although many disabilities do not affect job performance, the onset or recurrence of a disability may affect your ability to do the job.

If you have an invisible disability, you may be worried that you could have difficulty finding or succeeding at a job. Many people have misconceptions about people with disabilities, and some employers may not hire you if they know about your disability.

One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with an invisible disability is deciding when, or if, you should disclose—identify and give details about—your disability to an employer. This article offers information and suggestions to help you make that decision.

Career planning, job search, and the need to disclose

Unless your invisible disability could put you or someone else at risk, telling an employer about it is a matter of personal choice. If safety is an issue, you’ll need to disclose your disability at an appropriate time.

Disclosure is less likely to be a concern when you use effective career planning and job search techniques:

  • Analyze the kind of work you’re able to do. Apply for positions you know you’re qualified for and can handle. For example, if you’re a heavy equipment operator whose arthritis is under control, look for a position where an apprentice is available to help you with tasks requiring physical strength.
  • Look for employers who are likely to focus on your abilities and potential. Be sure your skills are a good match for the position and the work meets your needs. For example, if you’re a manager whose chronic fatigue syndrome is under control, apply to organizations that encourage employees to maintain a work-life balance.

  • Figure out what you need to succeed at a job, and apply for positions that meet most of your needs. For example, if you’re a computer technician with an auditory perceptual deficit (difficulty hearing information accurately), look for a quiet work environment where most communication happens online rather than in person or by phone.

What to include in your resumé

Unless you’re sure an employer is hiring for diversity, don’t disclose your disability on either an application form or in your resumé.

Choose the type of resumé that will be most effective for you. Though many employers prefer chronological resumés, this resumé type emphasizes gaps in your employment history. A carefully-designed combination resumé, focusing on both skills and employment history, may be your best choice. Be sure to include education, training, or volunteer experiences that may account for any employment gaps. If a combination resumé draws too much attention to the times you were not employed, use a functional resumé that allows you to focus on your skills.

For more information, check out Resumés and References.

Deciding to disclose

The following questions will help you decide whether or not to tell an employer about your invisible disability: 

  • Will disclosure help or hurt your chances of getting or keeping work?
  • How will the employer react?
  • What are the misconceptions about your disability and how will you address them if you disclose?
  • If your disability is under control, is there a reason to disclose?
  • Do your coping strategies allow you to meet the job requirements?
  • If you know you can’t perform some of the duties in the job description because of your disability, would disclosure encourage the employer to modify the job to fit your abilities?

Before you make your decision about disclosing your disability, think about these points: 

  • From an employer’s point of view, if you don’t disclose your disability, you don’t need accommodations.
  • You can never un-disclose, but you can always disclose later.

If you choose to disclose, decide whether you’ll do so:

  • During an interview
  • After you’ve been offered the job in writing
  • When, or if, you need accommodations

In Alberta, human rights legislation governs the way an employer may approach issues about disabilities. Alberta employers:

  • May not ask about your present or past mental or physical conditions (invisible or not) in an interview or on a job application
  • Should clearly state the requirements of the position in a job description or advertisement, which allows you to decide whether your disability prevents you from doing the job 
  • Can ask that you pass a medical exam or other tests related to the job, once you’ve been hired. 

The following lists show some of the risks and benefits of disclosing your disability. Think about your own risks and benefits.

Risks of disclosing:

  • You may not be hired.
  • You may be labelled.
  • You may give up your privacy.
  • You may face discrimination, subtle or direct.
  • You may face the envy or resentment of your co-workers if you ask for special treatment.
  • You may face the anger of an employer who finds out about your disability later and feels misled.

Benefits of disclosing:

  • The employer may be recruiting for diversity.
  • The employer may value your openness.
  • The employer can provide accommodations if you disclose.
  • Your abilities, attitudes, and success may counteract any discrimination. You may be an ambassador for others with disabilities.
  • Your openness can create understanding among your co-workers.
  • Your openness and cooperation may create a win-win situation so both you and the employer get what you need.

Disclosure and the job interview

If you decide to disclose your disability in an interview, follow these suggestions:

  • Mention your disability when the interviewer says, “Tell me about yourself.” 
  • Talk about your disability briefly, clearly, and without being defensive. 
  • Tell the employer about any accommodations or coping strategies you’ve developed as a result of your disability. This emphasizes your proactive approach. 
  • Be concise. Say something like, “For the last 3 years, I’ve been dealing with a medical issue, but it’s under control now and I’m ready to work.” Legally, the interviewer can only ask questions about your disability that relate directly to the requirements of the job. 
  • Be prepared to explain any gaps in your resumé, even if you decide not to talk about your disability. (See the scripted answer, above.) 
  • Stay positive. Return the focus to the skills, experience, and enthusiasm you’ll bring to the position and what you can do for the organization.

Disclosure and the job offer

If your disability could be a safety concern for yourself or others, discuss it with the employer after you’ve been offered the job. Your employer can take appropriate steps to avoid any possible risks. For example, if you have epilepsy and there’s a chance of a seizure, your employer can ensure a co-worker with first aid qualifications is available when and where you work.

If your invisible disability poses no safety concern, you may decide to discuss it when you‘ve been given a written job offer, or if you’re required to pass a medical exam, since your disability will probably come to light at that time.

If you think your immediate supervisor would be supportive, you may decide to disclose to him or her. Disclosing to human resources staff is another possibility.

If you accept a job offer without disclosing your invisible disability, it’s important to get a letter from your doctor stating that, at the time of employment, you were deemed fit to work. Keep this letter for your records.

Disclosure on the job

You may need to disclose if you need accommodations or time off for medical appointments or recovery. Remember that anyone can develop a disability, invisible or not, at any time. You haven’t been dishonest in not disclosing your disability. You were able to work because your disability was under control. This is why a note from your doctor dated from the time of your employment is essential.

Focus on what you have to offer

Don’t overlook the skills you’ve developed as a result of living with your invisible disability, such as creative problem-solving, flexibility, and determination. By using effective career planning and job search techniques, you’ll be able to assess your skills and connect with an employer who recognizes what you have to offer.

Additional information

Alberta Community and Social Services provides funding to assist people who are:

  • Looking for work and, because of their disability, may require products or services to help them get a job
  • Employed and, because of their disability, may require products or services to help them keep a job

Find out more about Disability Related Employment Supports (DRES).

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