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A key component of customized employment involves negotiating
an individualized employment relationship between a job seeker and an
employer in ways that meet the needs of both. The process involves identifying
tasks that must be completed to effectively conduct business and matching
them to the unique abilities and interests of the job candidate. This
will require employers to consider how existing tasks or unmet needs in
the workplace can be accomplished in new or different ways than have traditionally
Some people with disabilities may be able to negotiate an individualized
job description without support. Others may need a personal representative
or employment specialist to assist them in making the proposal. In either
case, employers will have questions regarding why a person is asking to
customize his or her job. This may require disclosing the job seeker’s
Disclosing a disability may be a major cause of anxiety or concern for
people with disabilities as well as those who assist them when looking
for a job. Keep in mind that customization begins with the unique contributions
that the person brings to the company and not from a charity or disability
perspective. Therefore, it is very important to consider how an individual
will disclose his or her disability as well as when and what will be disclosed.
This resource will provide information about some key considerations to
achieving effective disclosure in employment settings.
Question: Why should an individual consider
disclosing his or her disability?
Answer: Access to an accommodation in the
workplace is often dependent on a person’s disclosure of disability
related needs. Individuals with visible or hidden disabilities, who
know that they will need work-related accommodations including an individualized
job description, should plan to disclose. If accommodation is needed,
the job seeker or his / her personal representative should plan how
and when to tell potential employers about the disability and be prepared
to discuss support needs.
When a personal representative or employment specialist is used, the
individual must voluntarily give permission to disclose his or her disability.
Obtaining written authorization to disclose and a description of what
is to be disclosed is highly recommended. An employment specialist can
ensure that communications focus on the person’s abilities and
the proposed solutions that will allow the individual to successfully
complete the negotiated work tasks. Unless accompanied by potential
solutions, disclosure of a disability can unintentionally lead to exclusion
from certain types of jobs and/or employment discrimination.
As an example, a person with mental illness may need release time during
the week for medical appointments that occur on a regular basis. Disclosure
of the disability would be appropriate when asking for a flexible 40-hour
work week. The request might include how the individual would be able
to perform the essential functions of the negotiated job with this accommodation.
However, he or she would not need to provide details of the medical
diagnosis and treatment such as the type of medication that the person
is taking. In this example, if the employee continually asked for time
off from work without disclosing, the employer may have a much different
attitude towards the individual’s performance than if the accommodation
request had been made.
Jobseekers who have a visible disability may want to discuss their
disabilities with an employer to avoid misunderstanding or labeling.
Or, the person may want to disclose a disability to eliminate curiosity
or unnecessary concern from coworkers. Some people may use disclosure
to create an opportunity for educating others about disability and its
impact. Disclosure also provides an opportunity to learn more about
the business’ disability related services and supports.
Question: Can disclosure help overcome an
employer’s concerns of hiring a person with a disability?
Answer: Although everyone has some limitations,
people with visible disabilities often are viewed as incapable of working.
This unfortunate conclusion underscores the importance of changing attitudes
to recognize that people with disabilities have a vast pool of valuable
and important skills. Thus, the question about whether or not and how
to disclose a person’s disability shifts to educating employers,
addressing their concerns, and getting them to hire someone who happens
to have a disability. This change in thinking minimizes the disability
as an issue and focuses on ability.
The word disability is likely to raise concerns for some employers.
Under the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) employers cannot
ask about a disability. But, they may inquire about the need for reasonable
accommodation to perform essential job functions, if a qualified applicant’s
disability is disclosed or visible. This may make the employer feel
uneasy raising concerns about being sued if the “wrong”
thing is said. In such an instance, the employer may spend more time
focusing on his or her anxiety related to these unfounded concerns rather
than the applicant.
One possible way to address this concern is to be upfront about the
nature of the disability. However, simply telling an employer the name
of a disability label like traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy or
mental illness is not helpful and may further confuse the employer.
Instead of describing a disability in generic terms, communication should
focus on what the job seeker does well, functional limitations including
strategies for getting around them, and personal life experiences. This
can lead to discussions about how a particular job seeker’s personal
strengths and talents can benefit the employer and open the door to
customizing job descriptions.
When a person presents specific strengths and accommodation needs,
the fact that he or she is looking for a “good match” via
job negotiations may be very understandable to employers. Being able
to describe what the person does well hopefully will lead to an immediate
job offer. If not, this customized approach might at least spark ideas
about potential job designs that can be pursued elsewhere.
Question: What are the advantages of disclosing
Answer: There are many positive reasons
for disclosing one’s disability. If information is initially withheld
and later revealed, an employer may feel deceived and misinformed. Also,
if the job seeker has a personal representative or employment specialist
assisting him or her with negotiating work, employers may have questions
as to why this approach is being used. Disclosure also gives the jobseeker
and his or her representative an opportunity to obtain specific information
about the company’s employment and HR policies, its operations
and existing jobs. This information can then be used to determine whether
or not the job seeker can qualify for a particular job and an opportunity
to think in advance about the accommodations that he or she may need
to perform the job. Or, if the person does not qualify for existing
work, this will provide ideas on possible ways to create new work opportunities
specifically negotiated for the jobseeker.
By considering support needs in advance and having such information
in hand during the interview, the job seeker should be better prepared
to speak to how the various tasks will be performed with the right workplace
supports. This shows the employer how the person can be successfully
Question: What is the best way for the jobseeker’s
personal representative to discuss disability?
Question: Is telling a potential employer that
a person has a disability enough information?
Answer: The goal of disclosure is to do
so in a way that gains the employer’s trust, eliminates concerns,
and moves the employment process on to the next steps such as exploring
job possibilities, considering negotiations, interviewing and hiring
the applicant. The following points should be kept in mind when preparing
to discuss a person’s disability with a potential employer. First,
the personal representative and the individual who will be disclosing
a disability must be clear about the purpose and the desired outcomes
of disclosure. This ensures that disclosure occurs with the right person,
in a timely and appropriate manner, and with a clear goal in mind. To
be effective, the personal representative must be knowledgeable about
the job seeker’s abilities and familiar with possible accommodations
needed in the workplace.
Second, disability information should be related to job performance
and presented in a positive way. Avoid labels or clinical descriptions
such as bi-polar disorder or traumatic brain injury. This is not helpful
information in isolation for an employer. He or she may have pre-conceived
ideas about what these disabilities involve. Further, this may negatively
impact the employer’s openness to negotiating a position. Instead
one might say Jack can quickly change his daily routine, if he is told
in advance and allowed to write down what changes he needs to make in
However, sometimes, this approach may not work and an employer may
begin to guess the person’s disability. This may be a warning
sign that signals an employer’s fears and not knowing or understanding
the nature of the person’s ability. When this occurs, it may be
best for the personal representative, with the job seeker’s permission,
to simply reveal the type of disability. This should be immediately
followed by a discussion of the person’s positive attributes and
how he or she can make a contribution to the workplace. This approach
is more likely to yield a better outcome than stating something like
“Oh, no I am not allowed to tell you that.” An honest upfront
approach will usually go over much better than withholding this information,
which might raise suspicions and unnecessarily incite concerns.
When speaking about the functional limitations caused by the disability,
describe how the person can succeed and perform the job functions with
workplace supports, creative work structures, agency services like job
site supports or other modifications. For example, “Joan has a
job coach who can accompany her to work to provide any additional skills
training that extends beyond what you would provide to any other new
hire. While learning to perform the job to your standards, the coach
will make sure the job is done. Once Joan learns the job the coach will
fade off the jobsite. But will be available for consultation if needed.”
“Or, Jack works best when he has written instructions that specify
any changes to his daily routine.”
Again, disclosure should always be discussed with the job seeker, and
if appropriate his or her guardians, prior to making the first business
contact. The job seeker and personal representative should decide what
should be said and if applicable who will provide the information to
the employer. Whenever possible, the job seeker should take responsibility
for making his or her needs known to an employer. This may range from
speaking directly about one’s needs to simply handing an employer
a job proposal during an interview.
Question: How can a creative job search minimize
the need to disclose one’s disability?
Answer: Probably just saying that the person
has a disability is not enough. Given a lack of information, people
usually imagine the worst. So if you say “person with a disability”
there is no telling what the employer is thinking. Therefore, one could
argue that the more information that is shared in positive terms, and
the more exposure employers have to the abilities of individuals with
disabilities, the better chance there is for facilitating a customized
job. With this thought in mind, the disclosure question again becomes
not if one should disclose a disability, but how does one effectively
disclose? The following guidelines may prove useful.
When describing the person you are referring for an interview take
the opportunity to advise the employer about any special needs or the
uniqueness of the individual. For example, if the applicant is non-verbal,
prepare the employer by suggesting interview questions to which the
person will be able to respond. Or, if an applicant most likely will
not maintain eye contact with the employer, a comment such as the following
may prevent the employer from making negative judgments. “I want
to let you know that Joe has never worked and may not appear guarded
during the interview. He is quiet when he meets new people. He warms
up to others by the second meeting, and once hired he will be able to
perform the job.”
Employers should also be informed about accommodation needs for the
For example, revealing that an employment specialist will accompany
the individual who has a cognitive disability to complete the application
only serves to better prepare the employer. If the candidate has a unique
appearance, discuss a positive way to disclose this information to the
employer. “Mary has asked me to share with you that she was in
an automobile accident. As a result, she has a large scar from across
her face left eye to her mouth. She wants to assure you that this does
not impact her vision or ability to perform the essential functions
of the position.”
Answer: Ask what is the best way to find
a job, and the answer may be to look for and answer advertisements in
the newspaper. Or, use the Internet to search for job postings. Or,
buy a book on job-hunting at the bookstore. This longstanding traditional
approach to job hunting focuses on looking for existing openings and
competing with others for them.
This “numbers game” approach to finding a job works on
the principle that employers attract a large number of applicants, screen
most of them out, interview some, select the best candidate, and offer
the person the job. The goal is to screen out applicants who do not
look good on paper, have limited or gaps in their employment history,
or lack specific qualifications in reality may not be relevant to getting
the job done. This approach to finding employment can work against many
individuals and particularly those who happen to have a disability.
Customized employment uses a different approach. Instead of playing
the numbers game, a creative job hunt is conducted to locate opportunities
to negotiate an individualized job description. The creative approach
can minimize one’s disability as an issue. Since there is no job
at stake, the employer does not measure the person against an ideal
job candidate. This allows employers to shift their attention to creative
ways to use the person’s strengths in a workplace.
Question: How does informational interviewing
eliminate the need to disclose a job seeker’s disability?
Answer: Informational interviewing involves
gathering information about a particular business and its operations.
This is a “fact finding mission” of what the company is
all about rather than applying for an existing position. If the job
seeker is not present, the personal representative can discuss general
concerns about unemployment and disability related issues without specific
reference to the job seeker that he or she has in mind. That information
can come later after the personal representative learns more about the
business and its needs. Then, when negotiating the job the need for
possible accommodations (including job site support) may be addressed
verbally and within a written proposal.
If the job seeker is participating in or conducting the informational
interview, then any aspect of the disability that concerns the job seeker
can be discussed. Since the agenda relates to information gathering
there is no reason to screen the person from consideration for employment.
The jobseeker and/or the representative should be prepared to talk about
strengths and the contributions that the person would like to make to
Informational interviewing also allows the personal representative
and job seeker to learn more about the workplace culture. For example,
if the company is innovative, they may be open to negotiations, whereas
those who are rigid may not be. Or, if the workplace has worker friendly
policies that may signal that the employer would be more open to negotiate
a job and hire someone with a disability. This and other types of important
information can be gathered during an informational interview.
Question: What are some closing tips that
are related to effective disclosure?
Be prepared to discuss the specific disability. It may not be necessary,
but be prepared. If disclosure is needed be brief, straightforward,
and positive. For example, “Tomika has autism. This affects her
ability to understand multi-step verbal instructions.” State the
accommodations or modifications needed to succeed at work. For example,
“This means that Tomika will need some extra support to help her
become a high-performance employee for your company. If hired, a job
coach who has been trained to teach Tomika new skills will accompany
her to work and provide on the job skills training.” Or, “She
does not have a driver’s license, but she has access to a transportation
service. But, the service only operates between the hours of 10 a.m.
and 5 p.m.”
Then provide examples of successes the person has had in the past when
using the supports. For example, “While in school Tomika received
on the job training at the Cookie Mart. She received instruction from
a job coach and learned how to bake cookies and brownies. Here is a
reference from the manager that indicates that she was an exceptional
worker.” Or, “She is also available on weekends, because
she has family members who are willing to provide transportation.”
Finally, be prepared to answer questions about the specific disability.
In some instances, it may be helpful to give an employer a fact sheet
about general disability information such as tips for interacting with
people with disabilities. The personal representative should always
approach disclosing a disability with a positive attitude and focus
on the “win-win” situation that will occur if the individual
is offered a customized position.
Information for this FAQ fact sheet came from T-TAP: Training and Technical
Assistance for Providers. Contributors for this issue include Pam Targett,
T-TAP Training Associate and RRTC Director of Employment Services and
Dr. Katherine Inge, T-TAP Project Director. For additional information
on customized employment, you may contact ODEP at (202) 693-7880 or
or (804) 828-5956. For more information on T-TAP, please visit http://www.t-tap.org