By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun
The lobotomy joke started it all.
It was only after a former supervisor directed a remark -- both public and tactless -- at her that Sheri Cohen began reflecting on different ways of revealing her learning disability (LD) to her employers.
Sheri Cohen disclosed her learning disability to her employer after her probation period was up
"I only disclosed this information after my probation and in all honesty, I think the supervisor was angry and felt set up," says Cohen, executive director of Adult Learning Disabilities Employment Resources (ALDER), an agency that supports the career needs of working-age persons with LD.
Learning disabilities such as dyslexia are neurological and life-long afflictions that present unique challenges to adults in their relationships and working lives. Disclosure of the disability often presents insurmountable fears of rejection, or the misperception of laziness and stupidity on the part of employers.
Other job seekers whose first language may not be English, or those with criminal records also find it difficult to disclose controversial data, particularly when gaps on the resume occur or when that difficult-to-answer-question pops up during an interview. All of which begs the question, how, if at all, does one share this information with a prospective employer?
Helen Autoniou, co-ordinator for Youth at Risk, a program of Operation Springboard, a non-profit agency that supports the employment needs of at-risk youth, suggests "honesty is the best policy."
At times, she says, youth entering the program don't even want to reveal their social insurance number. "It takes a while to build rapport," she says.
Resumes are notorious vehicles for up-selling people who may not be qualified for a job in the first place, and sometimes information that is left out of the document is just as important as what is included.
As a rule, it is wise to leave information about a disability off the resume, unless the employer offers diversity statements in its advertising. Even then, job seekers need to sell their skills, not their limitations.
For those with criminal records, Autoniou says employers may address gaps presented in the resume. She reports that some of her participants who have not been honest have been relieved of their positions, especially when a criminal reference check has been required. "In our program, we can advocate on their behalf, and disclosure becomes part of their action plan," she says.
Interviews are another story. "It's unrealistic to think the employer can get everything from the first interview," she says, "but the job seeker also has to set realistic goals for themselves as well."
When receiving controversial information, Cohen suggests to employers that it is always best to approach the situation with an open mind.
"See the person as forthcoming," she says. "People with physical disabilities have an advantage here. With invisible disabilities, it's a proving game. Employers need awareness of the impact of LD. Take a course. Talk to other people with learning disabilities and find out all you can."
Autoniou concurs: "Everyone deserves a second chance," she says.
"Flexibility and open-mindedness are key, as is a willingness to be aware of the issues. If, for example, a former offender is applying for a job as a cashier, the employer might consider offering an alternative position like dishwashing, for example. Often in these situations both the employer and employee may both need to see the big picture. That's the buy-in," she says.
Some workers may find it helpful to prepare and rehearse a disclosure statement, which describes not only the disability, but also the strengths and possible accommodations that go along with it. This demonstrates confidence and ownership of the disability, and also a willingness to educate and collaborate with an employer to ensure equal and full participation in the workplace.
Once a disability has been revealed, there is also a legal duty to provide reasonable accommodation, such as text-to-speech software for those with reading disabilities. But is there a right time to disclose?
Cohen enthusiastically endorses full disclosure of a disability right at the beginning of the interview process.
"It's important not to feel ashamed of your disability," she says. "It offers an opportunity for employers to look at you in a different way, because we're a creative and innovative population that thinks outside the box. We need to be forthright and hold it and honour our disability."
Helen Autoniou agrees.
"My take on it is, if an employee can address the situation before the employer does, it creates a win-win situation. The employer wants to know what you can offer, but this is what you can offer now," she emphasizes.
Disclosure may not always be necessary. If a handicap does not affect a person's ability to perform the essential duties of the job, then there may simply be no need to disclose.
Likewise, if the person has adequate external supports or the disability is in remission, there may not be a need.
Bear in mind that job descriptions and work environments change as the workplace evolves, and a promotion that requires skills affecting a disability might force the need for disclosure.
However, the bottom line is to take responsibility for whatever responses are generated by an employer.
"It's important to not use your disability as a crutch," says Cohen. "Take ownership for all aspects of your condition," she says. "It's up to you to look at what works, what doesn't and what can be done differently. Don't see yourself as a failure; see your condition as a gift and the possibilities that open up are endless."
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