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Understanding One's Disability Leads to Job Success

by Deborah Leuchovius and Sue Fager

The idea that parents are "the experts" on their children is a cornerstone of the special education system. However, it is helpful to remind ourselves that the goal of this system is to prepare our sons and daughters for post school success. Both parents and professionals therefore have responsibility for helping students with disabilities to become "experts" on themselves. An understanding of oneself, one's strengths, and one's needs is key to becoming an effective self advocate and essential to postsecondary education and employment success.

One reason it is so important for youth to become knowledgeable about the kinds of accommodations they need and comfortable talking about their disabilities is that persons who do not disclose a disability to an employer have no protection from discriminatory practices under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Youth with obvious disabilities generally have less of a decision to face when it comes to disclosing the fact that they have a disability, but they still should be able to request and articulate the kind of job accommodations they need. (A job accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions.).

For those with hidden disabilities -- such as mental health issues, learning differences, or health impairments, the question of whether or not to disclose a disability to an employer can be a difficult one. Persons with less obvious disabilities need to consider if, when, and to whom he or she will disclose their disability. They must balance the need for employment accommodations against potential discrimination and negative perceptions. A key factor in the decision to disclose is whether or not a job accommodation will be needed at any point in the employment process. If an accommodation is necessary, disclosure of the disability will be necessary. Individuals can choose not to disclose their disability if an accommodation is not needed and if their disability creates no safety issues for themselves or their co-workers.

It should be acknowledged that disclosing one's disability can be particularly daunting for a young adult who wants more than anything else to fit in with his or her peers and does not want to highlight anything about themselves that makes them different.

What can parents do to promote this kind of self awareness? The skills necessary to confidently disclose a disability and discuss accommodation needs are developed over time and can be included into a student's transition IEP goals. Parents can also advocate that schools incorporate self determination training into school programs, for student-led IEPs, and for person centered transition planning.

There are also things parents can do at home. Parents can try to share as much of their hard won insight with a young person as they can. This includes helping youth understand their disability, how it affects them, and helping them understand the accommodations that help them be successful. Parents can work to create an atmosphere at home where youth feel comfortable talking openly about their disability, but should also be aware that young adults may need someone to talk to about their disability outside of their family. Parents can help youth find opportunities for them to meet with other young adults with disabilities or with adult role models with disabilities. These kinds of connections can be important to establishing a positive self-identity and make it easier for a young person to talk about their disability in other settings.

Fully understanding the impact of their disability may be a lifelong process, but your son or daughter will have a head start on success if they are comfortable with publicly identifying themselves as having a disability and able to articulate the supports and accommodations they need to be successful at work or school. Individuals who can confidently discuss their disability and accommodation needs have greater control over their lives.

Adapted from an article in the PACESETTER, Winter 2003, Vol.26, Issue 1.

For information about PACER's transition programs and materials, call (952) 838-9000 or (800) 537-2237 (Greater Minnesota) or visit

Online Resources on Disclosing a Disability:

The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities, from the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2005).

Advising Youth with Disabilities on Disclosure: Tips for Service Providers

Deciding Whether to Disclosure Your Epilepsy (a decision-making chart from the Epilepsy Foundation web site)

"Disability Disclosure and Interviewing Techniques for Persons with Disabilities," an article from the Job Accommodation Network

"Disclosing a Disability in a Job Interview", a 1996 article from PACER's Point of Departure newsletter

Disclosure of a Non-Apparent or Hidden Disability (a list of pros and cons from the National Center on Workforce and Disability/Adult.)

"The Disclosure Dilemma for Advocates" pdf icon (an article by Laverne A. Buchanan, Ed.D. from Information from Heath, July 2003)

Job Applicants and the Americans with Disabilities Act, a fact sheet from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

To Disclose or Not: Can You Afford to Bring Your Epilepsy to Work? (an article from the Epilepsy Foundation web site)

Learning Disabilities and Disclosure–Search LDOnline for a number of helpful articles addressing disclosure issues for young adults with disabilities

The Why, When, What, and How of Disclosure in an Academic Setting, After High School

Youth, Disclosure, and the Workplace: Why, When, What, and How

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