Should you advocate for your disability needs in a job interview?

It begins with what inclusion experts call the "disclosure dilemma." If you have a disability, here's how you can navigate it.
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Three years ago, I interviewed for a position in accessibility and accommodations services at a university. It was a job I wanted, and I was anxious—but not just with the usual pre-interview stress.

My anxieties were exacerbated by the fact that I have a disability: I stutter. But after my nerves calmed and the conversation started, not only did I choose to disclose my speech disability; I decided to also talk openly about my own experiences with stuttering and how that played a role in my interest in working with students who also have disabilities. About a week later, the hiring manager emailed me to let me know that I’d gotten the job.

While in this case, the interview turned out in my favor, I haven’t always been open about my disability while looking for a job. That changed when I first sought out community, eventually attending the National Stuttering Association’s annual conference. It was the first time I’d met so many other professionals who stutter—lawyers, doctors, actors, and more—all in one place. It felt surreal, like some alternate reality where stuttering was the norm. Everyone there stuttered openly, and it encouraged me to do the same.

Around that time, I also found myself unemployed. For those of us with disabilities, searching for jobs can offer a whole new set of worries, especially as we choose how to navigate if—and how—to talk about our needs with prospective employers. But coupled with my newfound acceptance of my speech disability, I found myself becoming more comfortable and more proactive in advocating for my disability-related needs while I searched for a job, especially in my interviews. I asked for accommodations; I often disclosed my disability in interviews; I learned not to shy away from my disability. In short, I became my own advocate.

Advocacy starts with disclosing your disability, according to Julie Harris, a disability inclusion advocate and founder of Access My Ability. If you also have a disability, there are plenty of ways you can navigate disclosure while on the job hunt. Here’s what you can do to advocate for your needs as you set off towards interviews.

Consider the “disclosure dilemma”

The disclosure dilemma refers to when, if, and how you disclose your disability during the recruitment process. That’s ultimately a personal decision, says Harris. “For some people, what matters might be disclosing your disability upfront in the recruitment process,” Harris says. “For others, it might be to disclose on a needs basis.”

In some instances, I’ve disclosed my disability upfront during the initial interview. Five years ago, I interviewed for a marketing role at a B2B tech startup. As soon as the initial phone screening began, I mentioned my stuttering to the HR manager right off the bat. As I explained to him, I didn’t need accommodations; I just wanted him to be aware in case there were any pauses in our conversation due to my stuttering.

In other cases, my disclosure has been on a needs basis, if and when I start stuttering during the interview. A few months before the B2B interview, I interviewed for a communications role at a local university. This time, I started stuttering quite a bit, so I tried the need-based approach of disclosing in the middle of the interview. “Thank you for bearing with me through that,” I said after a stutter, with a small chuckle. “I have a speech disability, so this might happen again. I just ask that you give me a moment to get my words out.”

As Harris says, there are pros and cons to both options of disclosing. For instance, when disclosing your disability upfront, it serves to get it out of the way and allows you to ask for accommodations instantly. But, she cautions, immediate disclosure might also lead to potential discrimination due to the disability.

Comparatively, disclosing as needed allows you to establish yourself based on your qualifications first. However, it might also cause the employer to question your disability—or delay accommodations.

When it comes to the disclosure dilemma, Harris says that “there is no right answer.” It’s about disclosing in “whatever way that allows you to be the most confident,” she says.

Talk about your disability like it’s natural—because it is

Choosing when to disclose your disability is only part of the equation. The other factor is how you disclose and discuss your disability. Harris strongly advocates for positioning your disability in a way that normalizes talking about it. “Because it is [normal],” she says. “Normalizing disability during the interview process can be as simple as treating it as a routine topic of conversation.” For example, you can introduce your disability naturally by speaking to how the skills you’ve gained from it make you more valuable as an employee.

“Job seekers can mention their disability in the same way they might mention any other aspect of their life or background,” Harris says, “whether in the introduction or incorporating into an answer of another question where it naturally flows.”

In fact, Harris says, you should call it your strength. I found the benefit firsthand in another job interview when I was asked about my strengths on the job. I answered truthfully that it was having a speech disability: my stuttering, I said, gives me greater empathy for other people’s struggles. I landed the role the next day.

Alternately, speak to your specific needs rather than your disability  

Harris also points out that there’s a difference between disclosing your disability and speaking up about what your needs are as a result of your disability. You don’t need to disclose your specific disability, she says, to be your own advocate.

For example, Harris says, there’s a difference between saying “I’m autistic”—which discloses a disability—and saying “I don’t read between the lines and work much better when communication is direct,” which illustrates a person’s specific needs as a result of their disability.

One reason to speak to your specific needs, rather than simply disclosing your disability, ties into what your goals for disclosure are. For instance, in 2011, I interviewed for a marketing role at a tech startup. At the time, I had just started to disclose my stuttering, but was still anxious about job interviews.

In contrast to the later B2B interview, when I opted out of accommodations, this time I disclosed my stuttering upfront and asked for accommodations by receiving interview questions beforehand. Unlike the previous interview, my goal behind the disclosure was to ask for accommodation rather than to simply disclose to make myself feel at ease.

“Not everybody with the same disability has the same required support,” Harris says. “It is the specific accommodations that the discussion should focus on, rather than the disability.”

Take a collaborative approach to accommodations

Since I’ve started disclosing my stuttering in job interviews and advocating for myself, I’ve found that employers genuinely want to work with me to support my needs. To stay protected in any case, you should know your rights; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against US job seekers with disabilities and requires that employers make reasonable accommodations.

However, as much as employers want to support you, you need to make your needs known. It may seem daunting at first, Harris says, but the best thing you can do for yourself is to disclose in a way that makes you feel confident, position your disability as normal, and open up about your needs.

“The easier you make advocating for yourself, the more frequent it becomes, the more confident you become, and the more natural it all gets,” Harris says.