Saturday, March 24, 2012

Full Disclosure ... Or Not?

I was 17 and it was one of the first real jobs I'd applied for. Walking up to the customer service counter at Walmart, I'd asked for an application form, which I then took home so I could use my desktop video magnifier to fill it out.

A few days later, I was excited to get a phone call inviting me to an interview. (I was sure getting an interview must mean I'd practically gotten the job.) When I arrived at the store, however, I was surprised to find a dozen other applicants milling about nervously. We were all escorted into a room and handed a stack of papers. It wasn't until I noticed that everyone else was frantically scrounging through their purses and bags for pens and finding hard surfaces to lay the pages against that I realized these were forms we had to fill out. Lots of forms.

I had kept my white cane folded and stashed in my purse. I was 17, this was my first job interview, and I wasn't about to instantly brand myself as different the moment I arrived by walking in with a white cane. And, staring at the multiple sheets of paper with faint blue print, I still didn't want to brand myself as different. Who would hire someone who's first act was to say they couldn't do something?

So, I searched my purse until I found a pen and a handheld magnifier, pressed my face to the page, and painstakingly filled out the forms. I was unable to read and write simultaneously, so my strategy was to squint through the magnifier to read, then take the magnifier away to write, then peer through the magnifier to check my writing, then move on to the next question, and so forth ... It was painfully slow. I tried to ignore the fact that everyone else was getting up and handing in their papers while I was barely done the first page.

I felt a huge sense of relief when I finally got up and handed in the forms. Even though I was, by far, the last one.

When it came time for the actual interview, I decided that the possibility of being asked to fill out more paperwork or do something else I couldn't see well was worse than the possibility of being branded as different. I took out the white cane and unfolded it halfway. At least they could tell what it was, hopefully ... but it hopefully wouldn't be the first thing that jumped out about me, either.

I thought the interview went well. I was nervous, being a teenager and all. At the end of the interview the interviewer told me that I would probably be hired as a greeter. I was ecstatic as I left the store.

I never heard back from them.

I tried waiting. I tried calling. I tried getting the employment counsellor I was working with to call on my behalf. We never heard back. Nothing.

To this day, I'll never know what happened. Was I just too timid in the interview? Or was it discrimination—their belief that, because I was visually impaired, I wouldn't be able to do the job? Or, did my reluctance to take out the white cane—and reluctance to ask for help filling out the forms—paint me in a negative light? Perhaps it painted me as someone who was not only self-conscious but also reluctant to communicate a situation and explain what I needed.

I had a job interview yesterday. Nowadays, I handle things very differently. I walk in with my white cane unfolded and in full view from the start. I will admit: I am still self-conscious doing this. I can't help but wonder what's going through the interviewer's mind when they see me, knowing that very few people have direct experience working with individuals who are blind. Oftentimes I'll learn what's on their mind as the interview progresses, because they'll ask me. "This job involves travel, how will you handle that?" "How can you use a computer?" "How will you supervise kids?" "There's lots of reading ... will that be a problem?"

I know that some people with disabilities would refuse to answer such questions. In the U.S. it is illegal to even ask them (I'm not sure about Canada). And, sometimes, I do get asked simple and awkward questions which make it clear that the interviewer thinks I'm unable to do the most basic tasks of daily living independently. But my philosophy is that if I don't answer these questions, how are they ever going to learn? Clearly they have never interacted with someone who is blind. What good would it do to clam up and refuse to answer a question, rather than answering it with ease and inviting them to ask any others they might have?

The flip side of this is that before interviews I go through lengths to hide my insulin pump and make sure all its alarms are turned off. I make sure my blood sugar is high enough that I have no chance of going low. My visual impairment is an obvious disability. Even if I didn't use a white cane, I would want the interviewer to know why I was unable to make eye contact. It's something that has a huge impact on how I'll perform the job—not because I can't perform it but because I may have to do so differently. But my diabetes isn't obvious. No one has to know I have it unless I tell them, and as of yet I have never had to ask for any kind of job accommodations for this disease. The one thing I don't try to hide is my Medic Alert bracelet; but, if anyone has ever noticed this, they have never asked about it.

The decision of when and how to disclose a disability or a condition like diabetes is complex. I've known people who disclose it right on the cover letter. I know others who call up and tell a potential employer when they get invited for an interview. I know others who don't say anything until they get hired—and this is actually me, in regards to diabetes. Would I do the same if I had a relatively minor visual impairment? Would I feel comfortable disclosing my diabetes if I was applying for a job where my disease might require accommodations?

It's hard to say, and it's definitely a topic of ongoing debate among health- and disability-related communities. I do believe that it can reflect positively on someone if they are able to comfortably talk about their disability and the types of accommodations they require—but it depends a lot on an individual's own comfort level. It also depends on the job; there are some jobs where it may actually be advantageous to state a disability or illness near the beginning of the application process. In the end, I'm not sure there is any "right" answer to when and how to disclose a disability or health condition to a potential employer.


  1. Hi Jen, congratulations on starting your blog! I have learned a lot already from reading it. I agree, there is not really a right way to answer a potential employer because you have no clue what is going thru their minds when they ask the questions.

  2. Jen - congratulations on starting the blog, and for starting it with such captivating messages!

    I agree with you about hiding the diabetes during an interview - I do the same thing. There's no reason you need to share it during the interview process (unless it's over lunch), and unfortunately it often comes with negative -- and false -- connotations. Many people think those who get diabetes got it because they didn't take care of themselves and didn't care about themselves (and if they don't care about themselves, how much will they care about their work?). For a large company that has is self-insured with regards to medical benefits, that could also be a tremendous expense to them.

    If you haven't seen it, this month's DSMA Blog Carnival topic is about disclosing diabetes. I wrote about this on my own blog, and this might be a good entry for you.