The following statement applies to millions of people out there in the work force: Even though it might not look like it, I have a disability that sometimes prevents me from doing things. That might be a chronic illness, a learning disability, a substance addiction, a mental illness, or lasting effects from an injury, surgery, or previous illness.
That statement applies to me. While my disability (I kind of hate that word. Condition? No, either way I sound like a patient) is physical, you can’t tell just by looking at me, so my supervisor didn’t know when she hired me. I was getting along just fine without telling anybody, but then came the day when I found out we were going to a ropes course for a team building activity. Most people would be so excited to read that email. Part of me was – it meant a day out of the office! The other part of me had this terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Not only was I going to have to tell my boss, but the others going on the trip were certainly going to ask why I wasn’t participating.
I sat around thinking of what I was going to tell my boss – and everybody else – before I actually went down the hall to say anything. I even thought a lot about this entry that I’m now writing. I also thought back to my experiences working in an office that provides services for students with disabilities. I had made a presentation for incoming students on the differences between “disclosure” in the K-12 setting and “disclosure” in college. In college (and beyond) it is up to the individual to tell their professor, RA, supervisor, what is going on. The individual has the right to say as much or as little as they want (to some extent).
After all that thinking, I went down the hall and informed my boss that I was unable to participate in some of the activities that would be taking place at the ropes course. I told her why and answered her questions. “What happened?” (An accident.) “How will this affect your job performance?” (It shouldn’t unless something similar to a ropes course becomes a job requirement.) “What can we do to help?” (I mentioned some minor tasks that were difficult for me and times I might have to use my car rather than walking.)
Disclosing your disability might be one of the most anxiety-inducing moments at a new job. We’re lucky in student affairs that everybody is so into feelings and making sure everybody is comfortable that plenty of people have understood why I don’t want to go into all the details of my accident. If or when you do have this chat with your employer, be prepared to answer his or her questions. You will probably be asked what you can and can’t do or how this will affect your job. Think about some non-routine tasks of your job. Hey, all those orientation job descriptions that say you need to be able to lift 40 pounds? I can’t do that! It wasn’t part of my current job description, but I let my boss know that in case one day she wants me to haul a box of something somewhere.
So now the awkward part of this entry…the comments section. Clearly, I’m not asking that everybody tell me everything about their “invisible disability”, but if you have any tips on disclosing, feel free to leave them in the comments. Heck, feel free to be anonymous with this one.