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Thursday, November 26, 2020
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DiversityStudents & Youth

6 strategies youth use to disclose disabilities at work

When navigating early career employment, youth with disabilities (YwD) face barriers to securing work and gaining relevant employment experiences that their non-disabled peers do not encounter. One prominent barrier is a limited knowledge of how to disclose disabilities during job search and in the workplace, which can result in disclosure that negatively affects employment. Although YwD face unique employment challenges, limited disclosure research focuses on this population. The work described in this article reveals six strategies YwD use to communicate disability-relevant information in employment contexts. Practical implications of these findings for workplaces and work-integrated learning environments are discussed.

What is an invisible disability?

Invisible disabilities are conditions that have no visible manifestation or have visible features not clearly connected to a disability. Individuals with invisible disabilities choose how to disclose their disabilities in work-related domains.

What is disability disclosure?

At work, disability disclosure is the “communication of information about a disability to an employer”. Individuals with concealable or partly hidden disabilities are often apprehensive about disclosing during job search or in the workplace due to fear of disqualifying themselves for a role or as a learned behavior because of negative outcomes of previous workplace disclosures. For these reasons, a growing number of studies outline strategies adult populations use to disclose disabilities at work. However, much less is known about strategies used during youth disability disclosure.


Read more about Roxy Merkand’s research on CERIC’s GSEP (Graduate Student Engagement Program) Corner.


Why is disclosure different for youth? 

Many YwD have limited experience discussing their disability with others at work and asking for workplace accommodations from their employer. Much of their work experience is gained through co-operative education programs, where students alternate academic semesters and paid work terms with the goal of gaining relevant work experience while simultaneously pursuing their academic degree.

Although there are clear benefits of co-operative education, YwD face unique challenges when participating in these programs, as they simultaneously navigate entering the workforce and learning to discuss their disability with others. For these students, perceived barriers to participation reduce the accessibility of these programs – exacerbating inequalities between YwD and other students. In fact, many YwD self-select out of co-operative education due to fear and uncertainty around disability disclosure at work. Further, many YwD who would benefit from workplace accommodations choose to conceal their disability at work until they face noticeable performance challenges, which often emerge too far into a co-op placement to implement suitable accommodations that would increase their success in the role.

The majority of existing resources on disability disclosure are not evidence-based or they are based on a small number of participants. Therefore, our research team connected with YwD to uncover strategies they use during disability disclosure.

What strategies are used to disclose?

Our team in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Department at the University of Waterloo collected disability disclosure strategies from over 150 YwD at a large Canadian university. Students described six different types of strategies they use to disclose disabilities in work-related contexts: power, interpersonal, knowledge/advice, topic, silence and disagreement.

Disclosure Strategy Strategy Definition Sample Participant Quote
Power Behaviours a person uses to address power dynamics in a conversation with others. “Made sure I knew my legal rights at least vaguely.”
Interpersonal Behaviours a person uses to interact with and communicate with others effectively. “Talk about it openly, allow for any questions they may have but also not downplay the effects of the disability”
Knowledge/Advice Behaviours a person uses to share new information or insights with others. “I talked about my strengths and weaknesses and brought it up while discussing my weaknesses. I talked about how I had been seeking help on the condition and my employer was impressed. I kept the description of the disability brief.”
Topic Behaviours a person uses to guide a conversation with others toward/away from certain topics. “Go into the discussion with a plan for what I want to say; I usually prepare a list of talking points and rehearse in my head how I will approach the conversation to make it as easy as possible for me and the person I am disclosing to.”
Silence Behaviours a person uses to initiate conversation or end silences in a conversation with others. “Ask questions in certain ways to get my answers.”
Disagreement Behaviours a person uses to solve disagreements in a conversation with others. “They are getting annoyed with me and I just need to tell them.”
What do these findings mean in practice?

These findings begin to provide a more detailed picture of what strategies YwD are using when they communicate disability-relevant information in the workplace. Before these strategies translate into recommendations for YwD looking for guidance on the topic of disability disclosure, more research needs to investigate how these strategies are linked to individual and workplace outcomes such as personal well-being, organizational commitment and receiving accommodations. However, this work provides a list of strategies YwD are currently using and can serve as a starting point when they consider what strategies to use during disclosures. These strategies can also be used in practice as career development practitioners advise students on their early career disclosures. This work is meant to stimulate a larger conversation about not only what YwD are disclosing at work, but how they are disclosing it.

Roxy Merkand Author
Roxy Merkand is a doctoral Candidate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of Waterloo committed to disability advocacy in her research and work. Roxy studies disclosure of invisible disabilities during job search and at work and currently works at UW’s Centre for Career Action, advising students, including those with a disability, as they search for and apply to jobs.
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Roxy Merkand Author
Roxy Merkand is a doctoral Candidate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at the University of Waterloo committed to disability advocacy in her research and work. Roxy studies disclosure of invisible disabilities during job search and at work and currently works at UW’s Centre for Career Action, advising students, including those with a disability, as they search for and apply to jobs.
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