Telling a Potential Date or Employer You Have a Disability Shouldn't Feel Like a 'Confession'
Whether seeking employment or a date, if you have an illness, condition, or disability, there’s always the question of when you should “disclose” this information, or if you should at all. A quick Google search of the topic will summon thousands of hits trying to decipher this new art form. Among these results are people asking for help. Should you do this during the interview? After you’re hired? Later down the line? When it becomes a problem? Or with dating, what’s the time frame? Is it a third date topic? After you’re committed? On the first date? That seems too risky…
Advice ranges from the super-enlightening, “if you think it could help,” to, “Don’t. It’s only caused problems for me,” to the instruction manual in another language: “Well, if X, Y, Z has happened and A, B, C could happen, then maybe…”
I think you get the picture.
The point is, we shouldn’t have to deal with this pressure. Weighing whether a potential partner or position will be worth losing if you volunteer this information, or constantly analyzing situations and people to determine if, when, and how we “confess” this information is ridiculous. Because that’s what it’s turned into, a confession. While the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has brought positive change to multiple areas of life, there is still work to be done.
What has happened so far in my experience? Well, I’ve realized I’m not the only one feeling the pressure. I have seen panic (or at least some moderate anxiety) in the eyes of someone interviewing me if I go anywhere near “accommodations” or “chronic illness.” On at least four separate occasions I’ve been cut off, told hurriedly “that’s something you’ll have to talk to HR about” or “OK, that’s good, that’s all we need to know!” The subject is quickly changed, and as I rejoin the conversation, I observe the person (or persons) opposite me slowly relax after averting certain crisis. As of yet, I still haven’t disclosed I have narcolepsy with cataplexy in an interview because I haven’t had the opportunity.*
*Side note: As far as I can tell, there’s been no ADA violations because 1) I don’t push the subject, 2) I get where they’re coming from and 3) typically, I’ve either ended up with the position or there’s an unrelated reason as to why the position won’t work for the company or myself.
This is wrong. People with disabilities won’t disclose because they don’t want to be discriminated against, and I think some employers avoid the topic like the plague in an interview because of possible legal repercussions if they don’t end up hiring this person. To me, narcolepsy is just another fact. It’s not necessarily something I want in bold on my resume, but due to its good-day/bad-day fluctuation while I figure out which concoction of treatment best appeases my particular set of symptoms, I want you to know I have narcolepsy so there’s a plan already in place.
We need another perspective change. The most recent trend has been the idea that people with disabilities are these magical creatures of strength and resilience here for inspiration, the proof “it could always be worse!”
My disability is “invisible,” so my experience is limited here.
Imagine though, being someone in a wheelchair, with an amputation, or someone
with Down syndrome, and being told the following on a possibly regular basis:
1. “You are so brave.” (not included: – “for being here, in a wheelchair. How do you do it?”)
2. “It must be so terrible; I can’t imagine.” (not included: – “life without your arm. At least I don’t have to deal with that…”)
3. “She can do that?!” (not included: – “this completely normal task, since ya know, she’s got Down syndrome and I can’t address her myself.”)
It would get real old, real quick.
What do I want? To go into an interview and discuss my qualifications, experience, etc., etc., and when the interviewer asks me for a bit more about myself or if I have questions, I can say “Well, Mr. Supervisor, one thing I like to note is I have narcolepsy, which just means I typically ask for a little more flexible schedule to allow me a couple naps during the day and to go to medical appointments as needed. This worked well in my last position, and I’d like to know what the company’s experience accommodating employees with disabilities is and if accommodations could be put in place prior to any start dates.” The supervisor, completely at ease, would be able to tell me the company has hired people with disabilities in the past and has a few “standard” accommodation plans already in place but that they always have a conversation with new employees before their first day.
Pipe dream? Having a go at those with an implicit bias or stereotype, asking them flat out how they feel about disabilities before any of this disclosure took place, with an honest answer from them. I don’t look like someone who would have a disability, so I relish the opportunity to try and challenge perceptions, even if it doesn’t seem to work. I know I’ve got a better-than-average resume, and that’s not just “better than average for someone with a disability” – I worked my ass off for it, like anybody else. My secret? I sometimes have had to go about getting my experiences in different ways. This, right here, would be my point. If I can accomplish the same quality, why does it matter if my, or anyone else’s methods, are different from “normal”?
I’ve already experimented to see what would happen in a real-world situation, just not in an interview (yet). I decided to test out how a stranger would react to the knowledge of my disability in the most neutral, welcoming, and non-judgmental forum I could think of: Tinder.
Surprise! It went well. Better than expected. On separate occasions, several months apart, I told roughly four or five of my matches I have narcolepsy. Caveat: this is not a line-opener. Just like an interview, it would be after we’d at least formed some type of conversation. This isn’t the most important thing in my life or in this situation, so it doesn’t get to be the first thing I talk about.
Now, back to the guys.
Whether it was a “fun fact about me? I’ve got narcolepsy!” “one thing you should know is I’ve got a chronic illness, it just makes life more interesting,” or the time I actually did say, “So how do you feel about disabilities? Because I have one haha,” I was met each time with genuine curiosity, questions, and respect for throwing it out there, and not once did I regret telling someone. That last one actually resulted in meeting the person and subsequently going on several dates, but even the ones I didn’t meet were consistently polite (shocker) and interested in learning at least a little bit more, so I consider this a success and promising for future research.
The lesson? Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t hide about yourself. If the situation is appropriate, ask more people how they feel about disabilities, honestly, and challenge (but don’t force) their thinking with how amazing you are. It’s true, right now you still typically need to be tactful with this information and you may have to hold back. However, the more brazen people there are who bring this into standard conversation, the more likely it will start to become standard conversation. And the asshats who continue to ignore these efforts or say “so sorry, it just isn’t a good fit” (and you know there’s more to it), are truly not worth all of the amazing things you have to offer. Don’t settle in any area of your life just “because you have one.”
Image via Thinkstock.