Disclosing disability, health conditions and neurodifference to an employer

2nd December 2020

Catherine Dove is a Peer Mentor with our Believe & Achieve team. She contracted viral meningitis in her first year at university and has lived with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis since then

Meningitis Now Believe & Achieve Peer Mentor Cat talks disability and work

Over the summer Cat was selected to take part in Leonard Cheshire’s Change100 Internship Programme. In this article, kindly republished from Tabou magazine, she tackles the daunting situation of entering the world of work.

Preparing to enter the workforce as a person with a disability, health condition or neurodifference (any other barriers aside) was already daunting enough. At what point do I disclose my needs? Will it count against me if I don’t disclose them? Will it count against me if I do? When is the best time to disclose my needs? Do all employers take a similar approach to recruiting disabled and neurodiverse talent? What are my rights?  

These were among some of the many, pressing questions going through my mind as I spent December and January applying for internships left, right and centre. In those two months, I applied for 14 internships and was rejected from every single one of them.  

As a person with a disability, health condition or neurodifference, you are protected by the Equality Act 2010, as a disability is one of the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act

When the global pandemic began to affect the UK, I had just been accepted onto Change100’s brilliant internship scheme, facilitating disabled and neurodifferent talent to enter the workforce. I was one of the lucky ones. The job market is set to become more competitive than ever, with recent graduates competing with highly-experienced professionals in a shrinking job market. It is therefore even more important that those of us who have extra barriers to contend with know our rights and how to navigate having our needs met by our prospective employers.

My frantic application season was supported by the wonderful Annie Dutton from the Oxford Careers Service, who imparted to me her wisdom when it comes to disclosing disability, health conditions or neurodifference to an employer. Here are some of the things I learned from her support.  

No right or wrong time

In general, there is no right or wrong time to be open about a disability, health condition or neurodifference. You are not obliged to disclose it; however, it is definitely worth sharing with an employer if you feel that you would be at a disadvantage by not sharing it. Be honest with yourself. For me, this meant asking myself, “In theory I could work full time… but would I really have any quality of life if I then had to sleep from 5:30pm to 7:30am to compensate?” It just wouldn’t have been sustainable. Be realistic with your own needs. You are human. You deserve to have a work-life balance, however that looks for you, feel well and fulfilled. Can you really contribute your best work if your needs aren’t being met? Here are three main stages to consider your needs and disclosure when applying for roles: 

The Searching Stage 

Before you apply for a job, look at employers in terms of their proactivity in recruiting employees with disabilities or health conditions. There is a "disability confident" scheme which rates employers as to how proactive they are in supporting disability-related needs in the workplace. The disability confident levels are:

  • Level 1 – Disability Confident Committed Employer 
  • Level 2 – Disability Confident Employer 
  • Level 3 – Disability Confident Leader 

You can expect a Level 1 Committed employer to: 

  • Ensure their recruitment process is inclusive and accessible. 
  • Communicate and promote their vacancies. 
  • Offer an interview to applicants who declare their disability. 
  • Anticipate and provide reasonable adjustments as required. 
  • Support any existing employee who acquires a disability or long-term health condition, enabling them to stay in work.  

Whereas, if you are looking at a Level 3 Disability Confident Leader employer, their activity can vary according to the size of the organisation/service. However, in general, you can expect them to do all the above, plus:  

  • Actively attract and recruit disabled people for opportunities. 
  • Automatically interview disabled candidates who meet the minimum criteria for the role. 
  • Have a flexible assessment process. 
  • Encourage their suppliers and partner firms to become Disability Confident. 
  • Record and report actions and policies relating to disability in the workplace, such as recruitment, progression, pay and adjustments.  
  • Record and report their activities that support the health and wellbeing of their employees. 
  • Ensure that all employees have sufficient disability equality awareness training. 

It is also worth noting if an employer is a Mindful Employer. This indicates that they are “committed to creating a supportive and open culture, where colleagues are able to talk about mental health with confidence that they will be supported.” (Mental Health at Work)  

These are important indicators to look out for. I learned the importance of this when applying for an (unpaid – already a red flag) internship with a company whose website had neither an “Equality and Diversity” section, nor even an accessibility page. Lo and behold, when I rang to discuss their disability policy confidentially with a member of HR, I was told “I’m afraid I can’t put you through to anyone without giving your name”. So that application went down the drain. You have the right to discuss disability issues confidentially. At graduate fairs or webinars, consider asking the representatives if they have the details of a contact regarding disability that they can give you. This would also reflect well on you during the application process; if you are asked "Why do you want to work for us?" you can say "I spoke to so-and-so, and … [insert fabulous rationale here]” Wow, what a proactive candidate we have on our hands!  

First opportunity to be open

Your first opportunity to be open about a disability, health condition or neurodifference is during the application process, when you are asked in some way or another about mitigating circumstances. In this section, you can outline the nature of your condition and any other circumstances in which it has held you back from taking opportunities or doing yourself justice. Anything you disclose at this point will NOT be shared with your interviewers unless you ask the graduate recruiter or HR to do so. You may ask to do this if you feel that you might be at a disadvantage in the interview, but you don't have to. Disclosing at this point may also mean that some employers will automatically give you an interview. 

Be aware at this point that the Equality Act focuses on adjustments. This means that employers can ask what reasonable adjustments you need in order to remove relevant barriers for you in the application process, but they are not allowed to ask about your personal circumstances. The best thing you can do for this is to find out as much as you can about the application process so that you can specify the adjustments you will need.  

Your second opportunity to disclose is at interview. Your disability, health condition or neurodifference may be something you are able to talk about positively, e.g. “Having […chronic awesomeness?] means that I am highly skilled at prioritising and am adept at dealing with changing situations.” 

However, if you feel that something didn't go so well because of your condition, you may feel it appropriate to disclose at the end of an interview. At the end of the interview you will be asked if you have any questions. At that point you can say "I just wanted to say that I perhaps didn't perform as strongly on this part of the interview, but it's because I have [chronic awesomeness]". It can be better to say this at the end rather than at the beginning of an interview because if you tell interviewers this at the beginning, they may be subconsciously looking for trip-ups. They are not allowed to ask you about any condition, and it could be considered discrimination if they do. 

When you get the job offer 

Your third opportunity to tell an employer about your condition is when you get your job offer. Wahey! With your offer will come an occupational health questionnaire, which is where legality kicks in. Your employer is obliged to offer you reasonable adjustments to help you do your job, be it with specific software or altered working hours. If you are having difficulties, it may be worth letting your line manager know or asking a disability contact in HR to ask what resources they can offer you, but you do not have to let anyone around you know unless you want to. 

Whilst 2020 may be feeling like the worst time to be seeking opportunities, beside any other barriers you may be facing, do not give up. You are brilliant, and you deserve great opportunities. The innumerable advantages of a diverse workforce are becoming increasingly apparent to most employers; those who still haven’t realised how much they have to gain from disabled and neurodiverse talent will be kicking themselves. Knowing how to address your access needs is a strength, not a problem, and supportive employers are out there. You deserve them. Keep going.  

For more advice on disclosing disability to an employer, visit Scope charity’s page for interviewees, and Oxford University Careers Service’s page for Equality and Employment

This article was originally published in TABOU Magazine. To find out more about the work TABOU does platforming the ideas of disabled students follow them on Instagram and twitter @TabouMagazine