Disclosing an invisible disability

Demi Rixon, acting vice-chair of our Lawyers with Disabilities Division Committee, discusses disclosing an invisible disability and shares her personal experiences.

Disclosing your disability can be a difficult and complex decision to make and it is always a personal choice. There are no rules in relation to disclosure and you do not have to tell an employer about your disability. It is completely up to you to decide if, and at what point in applying for a job, you inform an employer about your disability.

My disability is an invisible condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. At university, I encountered positive experiences when disclosing my disability and was greatly supported by the university’s law faculty and the disability support team. Subsequently, I felt confident disclosing my disability and had no fears about doing so to employers.

When entering the legal profession as a paralegal, I chose to disclose my disability at application stage, since I knew I needed reasonable adjustments when starting the role. 

Unfortunately, this led to many prospective employers asking prying and discriminatory questions about my disability during interviews ranging from ‘how did I achieve a first-class honours if I am disabled’ to ‘how does your disability affect you … do you use a wheelchair?’. Facing rejection after these uncomfortable interviews led me to question whether I was unsuccessful in obtaining job offers due to my disability.

These experiences have affected my confidence with disclosure and forced me to question whether I should keep my invisible disability invisible. However, for me, not disclosing would be detrimental to my health.

In a previous paralegal role, my employer did not understand how to get the appropriate reasonable adjustments and I therefore worked without any for approximately two months. This not only negatively impacted my condition and mental health, but also my work.

Reminiscing on working without adjustments reminds me of the importance for me personally to disclose. But then I face the impossible puzzle, if I disclose, I may not get the role due to disability discrimination but if I do disclose my working life suffers because of the lack of adjustments.

Due to my need of reasonable adjustments, I do often choose to disclose my disability during these early stages of a new role. To mitigate further negative experiences, and to rebuild and maintain my confidence, I now try to follow a number of techniques.

Firstly, I write a list of the positives and negatives of disclosing and how either decision will affect my health and working life. For example, by disclosing I will be able to take advantage of the Government’s Access to Work scheme. This scheme provides funding for any specialist equipment or extra transport costs and help with work related obstacles resulting from a disability.

Furthermore, I sometimes develop a disclosure strategy to plan when and how I will tell an employer about my disability. This means that I will be able to positively discuss my disability on my own terms whilst retaining a focus on my legal skills and abilities suited to the job requirements.

A written disclosure strategy gives me a sense of control over the situation and eases some anxiety when applying for jobs. I also like to have prepared answers for the uncomfortable questions that I may be asked. Before my first paralegal interviews, I spent numerous hours researching and preparing for legal interviews and the types of questions that may be asked. Shockingly no website gave any advice on how to answer a question regarding your disability. As such in that first interview where I was asked an uncomfortable question about my disability, I was bewildered.

While this preparation does help, employers should be mindful when questioning about a person’s disability during an interview. They need to consider whether an interview is the appropriate environment to ask such uncomfortable and sometimes invasive questions and, whether they need to be asked at all.

A panellist at the recent disability event at the Diversity and Inclusion conference staged by Leeds Law Society and the Law Society of England and Wales suggested the idea of discussing the impact your disability has on you (rather than detailing the specific medical details of your condition), which can lead to awkward and unpleasant discussions with your employer. This advice really resonated with me.

I previously struggled disclosing to my line managers and was conscious about what aspects of my condition I should tell them. By focusing on the impact of my condition, and how different adjustments can assist me to minimise the impact of my condition, I feel much less anxious about disclosing personal details regarding my disability. This leads to much more productive, positive conversations.

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