In the days of awareness campaigns and positive action, strides have been made towards the acceptance of people with disabilities in the workforce. What happens, though, if your disability doesn’t manifest in the need for a wheelchair ramp or a cane? From learning disabilities to brain injuries to mental conditions, there are people around us everyday with a disability and we’re none the wiser.
Functioning in the workaday world can be tricky at the best of times, but when you have a problem that’s not immediately apparent or understood, it’s that much harder. Cindy Mancuso is a career counsellor and diversity advisor at McGill University who has been helping students make the jump to the workforce for years. “I’ve talked to a lot of people that run into difficulties when disclosing their disability,” she relates. “While we’re talking about it more and employers seem more open to the issue, there’s often an idea of what kind of disability is acceptable.”
Elyse Chaplin agrees. Currently a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, she has drawn from her own history with dyslexia in her capacity as a success coach for post-secondary students with disabilities. “An individual dealing with a non-visible disability has to be prepared,” she says. “While there’s an increased awareness, we have to self-advocate and, most importantly, understand the challenges we have experienced, and understand and identify the accommodations and needs that we have.”
There’s only so much control a person has over a situation, especially when dealing with the reactions and opinions of others, and so self-knowledge is key. “I’m constantly telling students that they need to be the expert on their disability in order to inform someone else in a confident way so that it doesn’t become this murky issue,” says Mancuso. “They can’t expect an employer to understand everything right away and accommodate them. If they’re interested in a job, they need to research what they need in place to have the best environment to work in.”
Since 1986, Frank Smith has been the national coordinator of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS). When considering a potential job, he says it’s wise to look at it from all angles. “If your disability is episodic in nature, there are times of relative health and ill health. In many cases, employers are looking for permanent, full-time workers and may not be flexible,” he says. “With certain types of disabilities, flexibility is needed in work arrangements. Maybe a person isn’t well enough to work from the office, but can be effective working from home, given remote access.”
Disability or no, it’s important to consider your own goals and skills before settling on a career. “Knowing what you’re good at and passionate about can make all the difference," Chaplin agrees. “When we’ve learned how to succeed for a period of time and then hit an obstacle, it can be a real setback. Choosing a job that’s a fit and that we enjoy excelling at makes those setbacks less earth-shattering."
Disclosure can be a risky proposition at any stage of employment, and there’s a lot to consider when making the choice to do so. “We have to feel comfortable disclosing to people,” says Chaplin. “It’s a delicate balance: [knowing] when and how to disclose, what’s appropriate or not, and ensuring we’re well protected when we choose to disclose and seek accommodations and support for whatever disability we may have.”
In some cases, disclosure may not even be necessary. “If you know yourself and what you need, maybe that person doesn’t need to say anything at all,” says Mancuso. If a person does choose to disclose, focusing on the positive is recommended. “Tell people, ‘It’s not going to be an issue, but I’m letting you know about the challenges I might deal with and what I have in place to take care of it.’ When you present things in that light, they’ll know you have it together,” she continues. “The minute someone is hesitant or embarrassed, that makes the other person think it could already be a potential problem.”
Smith agrees that disclosure may not be necessary if a person’s ability on the job isn’t affected, but offers tips on broaching the subject. “Just like in any job interview setting, tell the person what you’ve done to be successful and what you’ve accomplished. People with disabilities are often very high-performing, because they’ve had to work harder to prove themselves,” he says. “So what if a person has a certain disability? They have academic or employment accomplishments just like everyone else.” jp