The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination of individuals with disabilities. It requires employers to make modifications (which are called reasonable accommodations) that enable a person to participate in the interviewing process or to perform his or her work. In my coaching practice, I have seen many cases where accommodations under the ADA enabled an individual to remain employed.
It is important to develop a strategy for disclosing a disability and requesting accommodations. A common mistake is to present a list of problems and expect an employer to find solutions. Most supervisors and human resources managers know little about Asperger Syndrome and the autism spectrum. A statement such as, “I have Asperger’s and can’t multitask” puts the burden of accommodation on those who know the least about what is needed. Proactively suggesting reasonable solutions greatly increases the likelihood that they will be implemented.
The ADA protects qualified individuals who possess the education, skills, and experience that an employer requires. The employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job. These are the core duties for which he was hired. A company does not have to lower quality or productivity standards for an employee who is disabled. Additionally, an accommodation must be reasonable. This means that it will not disrupt a business, create significant expense, or otherwise result in undue hardship for the employer.
An individual who is requesting accommodation is negotiating with her employer. There is no official list of accommodations that an employer must grant. They are decided on a case-by-case basis. What is considered reasonable at a company with 1,000 employees might be unreasonable at a company with 50 employees. An employer may offer an alternative to a requested accommodation if the company believes it will address the need.
How to Disclose in a Solution-Focused Way
I use this three-step process to help clients plan disclosure strategies:
1. Determine what to disclose
2. Decide how to disclose
3. Choose when to disclose
Determine What to Disclose
When determining what to disclose, make a list of every challenge an individual is facing on the job or with the application/interviewing process. This reveals accommodation needs as well as any areas that the person must address on his own. Accommodations must not be confused with basic job readiness. Asking an employer to adjust a work schedule because an individual has trouble managing her time is a job readiness issue that should be addressed by the individual. Asking for an adjustment so an individual can go to medical appointments is an accommodation.
Note how each challenge impacts the person’s performance, and what accommodation will enable her to meet expectations. For example:
Decide How to Disclose
Next, plan how to make the disclosure. Avoid long, detailed explanations. One man drafted atwo-page letter to his new supervisor that included quotations from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Not only did it contain many details that were irrelevant to the workplace, it is highly unlikely that his boss would understand terms like “restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”
Choose When to Disclose
The third step is to decide when to disclose. The best time depends on your situation:
- Disclosing in a cover letter or on a job application: You may need to do this if you require assistance submitting an application or with the interview process. It is risky, however, because it puts the focus on potential problems, rather than your qualifications. In many organizations, there is still apprehension about hiring people with disabilities.
- Disclosing during a job interview: If your challenges are so noticeable that not offering an explanation will disqualify you, disclosure is a viable strategy. For example, Allison needed several seconds to organize her thoughts before responding to questions due to her slow processing speed. This could make her appear “spacey” and unprepared. She decided to tell employers, “Because of my Asperger’s Syndrome, I need a few seconds to organize my thoughts in order to answer your questions.” However, if they aren’t noticeable, disclosing during an interview focuses attention on your limitations and on potential problems.
- Disclosing when you receive a job offer: If you know that you will need an accommodation immediately, this is a good time to disclose. An employer cannot rescind the offer because you disclose a disability. Waiting until your first day on the job to ask for a modification could create an atmosphere of distrust. However, if you believe that you can meet the employer’s performance expectations, there is no reason to disclose Asperger’s Syndrome.
- Disclosing before a problem arises: Some individuals choose the proactive strategy of disclosing to a supervisor before any problems arise. For example, Alex explained that because of his Asperger’s Syndrome, he was very literal. “Let me know if I am misunderstanding instructions because of that,” he said to his boss.Disclosure should be done in person and a human resources representative should be involved. Do not assume that managers understand the ADA or how to accommodate employees. Human resources personnel are trained in the law and also responsible for documenting accommodation requests.
Planning Your Request
Carefully plan how to phrase an accommodation request. Avoid vague statements. “Poor social skills” can suggest poor manners or a personality problem. Be specific. “Because of my Asperger Syndrome, I have difficulty processing verbal instructions and need written instructions for tasks.”
If an individual is working with a coach, speech-language pathologist, or other professional, this should be communicated to an employer. It demonstrates the employee’s commitment to addressing difficulties and being successful on the job. Some companies will reimburse employees for private coaching. The supervisor of one man I coached was so happy with the results that she made arrangements for him to be reimbursed by the company.
Handled correctly, disclosure and reasonable accommodation(s) can transform an employment situation. However, disclosure is a personal decision. Whether it is the right option depends on the nature of your job, your overall performance, specific challenges that you face, and your comfort level with disclosing a disability.
- Workplace Disclosure Strategies for Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome & Nonverbal Learning Disorder is a free guide from the Forward Motion Coaching Web site.
- The Job Accommodation Network offers a wealth of information about the ADA, including free guides with accommodation suggestions for specific disabilities.
Barbara Bissonnette is a certified coach and the principal of Forward Motion Coaching. She specializes in career development coaching for adults with Asperger Syndrome and similar autism spectrum profiles. She is the author of three books on the topic of Asperger’s and employment, and presents training seminars around the country for professionals. Her seminar, Finding Employment that Works for Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, is taking place in Columbia, MD on October 29 and in Chicago on November 5.