When we started talking about employment, I suggested it is in your best interest for legal reasons to disclose any disability to the human resource specialists at your organization. I also encourage students to contact the Disability Services at any colleges or universities they attend. There are some good reasons to be proactive.
"Nothing about my disability affects my job," the student replied (paraphrasing).
I hear variations of this from students, especially young adults with "hidden" disabilities. I've had students with seizure disorders, ASDs, migraines, auditory processing impairments, and learning disabilities tell me, "I'm not disabled."
Okay, we can argue the semantics of "disabled" and "differently abled" and whatever else you prefer, but the short response is: legally you are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, not the Americans with Different Abilities Act or the Americans of Diverse Physical Experiences Act. So, like it or not, you have to disclose a *disability* to protect yourself legally and defend your rights in the workplace or post-secondary academic setting.
Until I started my graduate degree, I had never bluntly declared myself disabled. Why would I do that? But, the reality is my parents certainly informed my K-12 schools and made arrangements to accommodate my physical and neurological differences.
"Why should I tell anyone?" students will ask.
Now, I can answer from the perspective of an employer, an educator, and an adult with lots of life experiences.
1) Your own safety.
If you have a seizure disorder, stimuli sensitivity, migraines, autism disorder, or any other impairment that can cause physical reactions, someone should be aware of this. Even if your last seizure was years ago, you simply cannot predict such things. I've gone most of a year without a serious migraine and months at a time without a bad palsy episode, but those things do happen. No employer or school can be held responsible for *not knowing* what you didn't tell them.
In my case, I tell the appropriate people that I have a palsy and partial paralysis. I also explain any other issues that could be problematic. That does not mean I plan to have problems. In fact, I hope to never have a serious issue at work. I tell students and parents this is like making back-up copies of data from your computer: when you do backup data, your computer never crashes. There's some sort of paradox that the more you prepare, the less likely a real emergency becomes.
2) The safety of others.
Imagine if my partially paralyzed arm were to palsy while I was carrying a desktop computer or laser printer. It would fall, definitely, and potentially harm not only me but anyone too close to me. There are some physical limitations that can and do increase the potential for unintentionally putting others at risk.
Your coworkers, clients, classmates, et alii, deserve to be protected from any reasonably preventable risk. A school, organization, or employer has the right to know if your disability could present any risk. More importantly, this is not something you should determine on your own -- you should allow an HR or DS specialist the opportunity to help you make this determination.
3) No, life is not "fair."
Yes, some people will judge you if you disclose a disability. That's lousy, but it is a fact. I know we all want to change that and help people become more tolerant. If someone doesn't want to work with you because you're disabled, that's their loss -- not yours.
4) Do I give up?
Don't give up when a company or school tells you that they cannot accommodate your disability. I work with some great autism experts, occupational therapists, and others who help me answer questions employers and schools have.
Because of my paralysis, I cannot always lift heavy objects "properly" as defined by federal occupational safety regulations. However, a physical therapist taught me about various (cheap) alternatives I could present to employers, even offering to supply my own adaptations. I use a cart to move my supplies from one classroom to another, for example. I bought the cart and it is a great device. I love it. The school is spared any hassle, and I'm not going to drop anything.
Disability Services at universities have experts in how to accommodate special needs. Most public school districts also have such experts. Meet with these people and prepare potential answers for concerned employers or university faculty. If you tell an employer, "I have a visual impairment, but I can provide my own screen filter," that demonstrates how serious you are about a job.
One student pointed out, "I shouldn't have to pay to work somewhere." No, legally you don't have to make your own accommodations, within some reason. However, don't we buy our own glasses? Don't I buy my own cane to use? I pay for all sorts of little conveniences. We can debate what is or isn't reasonable, but at least try to reduce any and all reasons someone might use to not hire you.
I know this topic deserves more attention and deeper thought. I'm not advocating for the view that employers and schools should do nothing. Quite the opposite is true. I think an employer should do anything possible to hire and keep the best employees, especially those with special needs. Why wouldn't I provide special technologies to help accommodate an outstanding employee? Heck, that employee is going to help the company or organization serve clients well.
But, you have to be an open and honest advocate for yourself. You don't have to disclose every detail of every limitation with which you live. However, to fully obtain legal protections requires telling the appropriate experts at an employer or school. They really are there to help you!
Note: I'm going to put more of these presentations online, since they seem to be popular. I have DVDs and Keynote presentations, so the effort shouldn't take more than a few weeks to get something online. Unfortunately, I am swamped right now with a long to-do list and need to tackle items in order or I'll never get any one project completed. The post I planned on writing and autism will be composed tonight. Sorry for that delay, too!