Disclosure 101: Law, Practice and Reality for Autistic Adults During Disclosure



Why disclose autism or another disability? Most often, disclosure is because of a need for accommodations. Anything that gives a person equal opportunity on a campus or in the workplace can be a disability accommodation. For example, a college student who has difficulty writing with pen and paper might be allowed to use a computer to type test answers. If an employee finds spoken conversations hard to follow, using email instead of telephones could be an accommodation.

Disclosure and the Law

People with disabilities have a legal right to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended. Usually the process begins when a student or employee discloses a disability and asks for accommodations. The person may need to provide medical documents explaining the nature of the disability. Colleges and employers should not ask for medical information that is unrelated to the request for accommodations. It is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of disability or to retaliate against a person who asks for accommodations.

Asking for Accommodations

The accommodation process is an interactive dialogue between the person making the request and the school or employer. There are several questions to consider. What are the tasks that need to be done? How does the person’s disability affect the performance of those tasks? In what ways can the campus or work environment be changed to remove barriers? When asking for accommodations, it is best to be as specific as possible in describing them. Documents should be prepared stating, in detail, what accommodations are needed.

What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

An accommodation is reasonable when it enables a person to do his or her essential tasks. It is not reasonable if it would cause an undue hardship for the college or employer. In most cases, the cost of providing an accommodation to give a person equal access is not an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations also include enabling people with disabilities to apply for jobs or for college admissions. Because everyone has different access needs, whether or not an accommodation request is reasonable depends on the particular facts.

Disclosure on the College Campus

Most colleges and universities have a disability services office for students with disabilities. Typically, the accommodation process begins there. Disability offices usually require paperwork that 1) identifies your disability and 2) suggests possible accommodations. Your college’s office will need to have this documentation before they can work with professors, residence life, or other university programs on your behalf.

Going through disability services, especially when you are a new student, can seem stressful and overwhelming at first. It’s a good idea to make an appointment with the office before the school year starts. (If you’re nervous, you can ask a friend or relative to come with you to the meeting.) When you meet with disability services, you’ll receive information about what they need to get the accommodations process started. For example, they might ask for diagnosis paperwork. Or, in some cases, they might require additional testing before they can provide assistance.

Generally speaking, the only people who have to know that you’re autistic are the people who work in disability services. All that your professors, residence directors, and campus employers need to know is this: you are registered with disability services and need certain accommodations. You can certainly tell your professors, for example, that you’re autistic — but you do not have to and it’s illegal for them to ask. What’s most important is having equal access (in class, in your residence community, and at work) so that you’re able to learn and participate fully.

When I attended college, the disability services office provided a number of supports and accommodations. As an accommodation, I received extra time on exams. Additionally, I had the option of taking my exams in a quiet, sound-proof room. I was also assigned a disability counselor. At first, I met with her every two weeks, mostly to brainstorm how I might “participate” in class. I have a hard time following and entering classroom discussions, so we devised other possibilities, like keeping a class blog or talking with my professors one-on-one, outside of class, to demonstrate that I’d done the reading.

Most importantly, though, my counselor served as my advocate, and helped me to become a more effective self-advocate. At a few points, I found myself in situations where my professors didn’t want to accommodate me, even though the accommodations were reasonable. In these instances, my counselor intervened on my behalf to get those accommodations in place.

Disclosure on the Job

If you’re in need of accommodations, you might choose to disclose your disability at work. Because no two employers are alike, there are a variety of ways you might approach this. If your employer has a human resources office, you can begin the accommodation process there. A human resources assistant can oversee and implement workplace accommodations and supports. And, if any problems arise on the job, you should contact human resources in order to work out a solution.

If you don’t have immediate access to a human resources office, you might discuss accommodations with your supervisor. You might also find it helpful to involve a job coach or other transition support agency as you and your employer discuss reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

Practical Tips for Resolving Disputes

Unfortunately, disputes over accommodations do arise at school, work, and beyond. If your professor or employer believes an accommodation is unreasonable — that is, something that would alter the nature of the class or would cause them undue hardship — they can deny your requests.

When you find yourself in these situations in college, set up a meeting with your disability services office. If these disputes arise at work, discuss the situation with human resources or a supervisor. Sometimes, these offices will advocate on your behalf for your requested accommodations. Sometimes, though, they won’t advocate — if they believe your request cannot be reasonably or realistically accommodated.

Beyond college offices and human resources offices is the wider disability community, which contains networks of disabled activists. These activists strive to make school, work, and community life more accessible. They have a lot of advice to share, and they can serve as mentors and advisers as you navigate the disclosure process.


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