Whether you’re looking for a job or looking for love on the Internet, the question likely to arise is, “When do I disclose my disability?” There are several schools of thought including “Disclose right away!” or “It’s okay to wait” and even “Don’t mention it until you meet/interview.” I have had experiences with all three of these scenarios and thought I’d describe them and then share what works for me. Once you create your own disclosure policy, it can take the worry out of many situations in your life because it becomes a rule you follow. The best part is that this rule is completely adjustable over time. It’s your rule!
Option 1: Disclose Right Away
When meeting in person, it’s obvious that I use a wheelchair. This is an undeniable fact. In-person first meetings are always instant full-disclosure. But when interacting online the only way someone else knows I use a wheelchair is if I tell them. The advantage of full-disclosure right away is that you get your “baggage” on the table immediately. There’s no worrying about it. The bad part is that sometimes people tend to judge a book by its cover. When it comes to online dating I actually think full disclosure is a great way to filter out people who might never accept a disability. However when it comes to applying for jobs, it’s possible that even though a company might say they’re an Equal Opportunity Employer, a recruiter or HR person might make a judgement with or without even realizing it. Does it matter that I use a wheelchair if I am applying for a programming job? Absolutely not.
On a resume, however, it might not be possible to talk about all your achievements without mentioning disability in one way or another. For example, if you have won any disability-related awards or participated in wheelchair sports, you can’t really cover that up and probably don’t want to. The good news is that the awards and active participation in sports are great attributes and will hopefully be seen as an asset. Similar to online dating, you might be happy to have your disability as a built-in filter for employers too. After all, do you want to work for a discriminatory employer? Probably not.
Option 2: Wait to Disclose
The next option is waiting to disclose until an appropriate time. There is no specific appropriate time, in my experience. In the past the opportunity usually presents itself when a logistical discussion comes up. For example, if you’re corresponding with a potential significant other who suggests you meet for a hike, you might take that opportunity to say, “A hike sounds great but I use a wheelchair, so we might have to go for a walk instead.” Even before that, however, I think it’s perfectly alright to let communication blossom a bit before bringing up a disability. It gives you a chance to show off your personality and your inner-workings, which I think are 99%+ of who we are anyway. After all, you don’t get to know the other person 100% right off the bat immediately anyhow, so why feel like you have to get everything out on the table right away yourself? I have followed this method in the past and it never became a problem but it meant not feeling quite right about the interaction until I disclosed. You might feel differently.
When it comes to jobs, disclosure will definitely happen when you meet for an interview. However, you might find it necessary to disclose prior to an interview if you suspect there might be logistical difficulties with meeting. For example, I once went to meet a client whose office was up a flight of stairs in a building without an elevator. Had I done a little investigating I might have decided to call and let them know I use a wheelchair so the arrangement could have been taken care of in advance. Since most businesses (but not all, yet!) are usually somewhat accessible, this has become less of an issue. But if you get an interview and then say, “By the way, I use a wheelchair, will the interview location be accessible?” it shouldn’t be a problem. I’m 99% sure they won’t suddenly cancel the interview on you. If they do purely because you use a chair, then that’s not legal.
Option 3: Don’t Mention It Until You Meet
There are days when I can be swayed by the argument not to mention it until you meet because disability should not matter at all. But for me, there’s a psychological ease when I know in advance that the other person knows I use a wheelchair — whether it’s a date or an interviewer or a client. For me, it’s especially important prior to meeting someone who I might date. It’s not quite as important as when I am meeting a client or if interviewing for a job.
When it comes to online dating there are some things in profiles like “What sports do you play?” or “How often do you exercise?” that don’t necessarily allow you to specify that you play wheelchair tennis or your exercise consists of using a hand cycle. If you don’t explicitly say you have a disability, then answers to some of these questions might lead the other person to continue to presume you’re able bodied. After all, I think the presumption most of us have is that the other person is able-bodied unless we’re told otherwise. Personally, I would prefer not to shock another person when I am meeting them for the first time. Some people might not be shocked, but some might feel you have misled them by not bringing up this “important” detail.
I think you have to remember that if you have accepted your disability and it really isn’t important to you, then it’s easy to forget that someone new might not be exposed to disability and wheelchairs enough to be totally comfortable with it. That’s not to say they never would, but the initial shock might be a turn off.
When dealing with employers or clients, who by means of the law are Equal Opportunity, the underlying ideal is that your disability doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter. So not disclosing until you meet in person shouldn’t come with any apprehension.
My Disclosure Policy
I have a disclosure policy that I am extremely comfortable with and it varies whether I am dealing with an online profile or looking for a job.
1. I mention my disability, but don’t make an issue of it, when posting an online profile.
I like the idea that my disability works as a filter. If someone doesn’t bat an eye at the fact that I use a wheelchair and chooses to contact me, that takes a lot of pressure off. If someone responds to me despite that same information, then I know it can come up freely, and immediately in conversation. I don’t have to hide anything. It also helps to wrap up the things I’ve done despite my disability when disclosing. For example I might say, “I’ve traveled the world by myself to play wheelchair tennis tournaments.” This lets the person know I use a wheelchair but also makes it clear I’m independent and not looking for a caregiver!
2. I mention my disability only if I feel it could pose a logistical problem for meeting a potential employer or client, but I allude to it on my resume.
There are awards and experiences that I am proud of which I feel contribute to my overall resume so I don’t remove them. I do try to make them as generic-sounding as possible, however. As a courtesy, if the appointment might be located somewhere difficult for me to get to, then I definitely bring it up so they can prepare for me. This removes any potential for awkwardness.
Overall, a disability disclosure policy is a very personal thing and it’s really up to you to create your own. There are no rules for this. Do what makes you comfortable if you think it won’t hurt you. If you think you could benefit from changing your perspective and your disclosure policy, then work through any discomfort and make the change.