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Who Do You Tell About Your Disability?

In telling other people about your disability, you should anticipate misunderstandings and have information ready that will correct these misconceptions. This article gives tips about how to disclose successfully in the workplace and in other settings.
Edward M. Hallowell, M.D.

It should be possible to talk about having a disability … about your ADD or your Depression, or your Dyslexia …. you should be able to do so without encountering suspicions or disbelief. However, this is rarely the case. People who know nothing about these brain based disabilities-and that includes most people can easily misunderstand you. Take Attention Deficit Disorder, for example. Your co-workers or your boss may think it is an excuse for being lazy, or that it means you are mentally ill, or that it is just a fancy word for stupid.

In telling other people about your disability, one should anticipate these misunderstandings and not be thrown off by them. Have information ready with which to correct the misconceptions. Try not to get defensive, but rather be sympathetic with the other person’s point of view. They may have never heard of your condition and at first it sounds pretty fishy. “You mean there’s a neurological condition to explain why you’re late, forgetful, irritable, impulsive, and disorganized? Give me a break,” they may say. Be patient. Over time you will be able to explain it to them, and you may find they start thinking of other people who have similar conditions, maybe even themselves.

Bringing it up in the workplace can be particularly tricky. There is a law now to protect against discrimination on the basis of disabilities and this includes brain-based disabilities like ADD, Dyslexia, and Depression. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability. For further information about this very significant law, write to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1801 L Street, NW, Washington, DC 20507, or telephone 202-663-4900.

However, one may still fear the kind of discrimination that is hard to pin down, the kind of discrimination that invisibly can undermine one’s career without being explicit enough to file a grievance over.

The best way of dealing with this situation is to find your way slowly. Make inroads, form alliances, and when you feel you have some basis of trust, bring up the subject of your disability in the abstract. Do some advance educating before you volunteer the fact that you have a disability. It is well worth doing this because if your boss can understand your disability, it can make your work life much more satisfying and productive. It is simple to devise a program of accommodations for the workplace as long as the workplace is receptive to it-and remember, an employer is bound, under law, to be receptive to what are called “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace. The same kinds of strategies work in the classroom- structure, lists, reminders, breaking large tasks down into small, elimination of time limits, reduction of distracting stimuli, encouragement, and support-help a great deal in the workplace as long as the environment is receptive.

And not only does the law mandate that the employer be receptive, it is also in the employer’s best interest. By providing a supportive work environment that develops people, that helps each worker to reach their full potential, your employer will, in return, have a group of loyal, hard working, energetic, and committed workers. Tapping into their true potential is like harnessing rushing rapids to a hydroelectric turbine.

Publications from Edward Hallowell, M.D.

Edward M. Hallowell, MD Reprinted by permission from Mind Matters April 2000
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