Liberate and empower yourself: Own your disability

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Magnifying glass enlarges the word "Disclose" in a dictionary

If you look up the word ‘disclose’ in the dictionary, you’ll find synonyms like ‘confess’ and ‘admit,’ terms that imply a sense of guilt or shame. But knowing how and when to disclose a disability is an empowering piece of the self-advocacy puzzle, so why should the language surrounding it have such a negative connotation?

Starkloff’s Career Academy Director Susan Menhard and Adult Career Services Coordinator Jason Hartsfield recently found themselves asking the very same question. After a review of SDI’s course workbook, they decided to abandon “disclosure” in favor of “disability ownership,” a small edit that will hopefully give way to significant change in how employers and job candidates talk about disability.

“The difference between disclosing a disability at work and taking ownership of a disability at work is that one is confessing something negative and hoping for mercy, while the other is claiming it with the understanding that you have rights as someone with a disability,” Jason explains. “I want job seekers to think about their disability as a proud identity that comes with rights people have fought and died for, not something they must confess to as if they’re ashamed.”

Over the years, society has routinely characterized disability as a pitiful state of brokenness, so it’s no wonder people become apologetic or reticent about sharing their true selves. But it is important to remember that taking disability ownership isn’t something you have to do on your own.

“Disability is a social identity, a community you can be part of,” Jason suggests. “It’s a community with values and culture attached to it, and it’s there for you to claim ownership of.”

Invisible disabilities and disabilities acquired later in life can be especially difficult to come to terms with, but Susan still encourages candidates to draw strength and insight from a supportive network of peers.

“It can be the hardest thing to do, but you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to seek out the community,” Susan urges. “It’s what finally helped me realize that this paralysis is something that’s part of me, but it’s not all of me. I’m not defective; I can still do a lot of things. I don’t know how I could’ve made that philosophical change otherwise.”

Jason was actually one of Susan’s career academy students back in 2013. He remembers the course as a significant milestone along his own journey of acceptance.

“Every visually impaired person I knew up until then was totally blind, so I really didn’t feel like I had the right to claim that identity as my own until I met the other low-vision people in that class,” Jason recalls. “It was truly transformative because it was the first time I really felt like I was part of a community.”

If you’ve taken the career academy course, then you are familiar with what constitutes a reasonable accommodation at work. While knowing when and how to request accommodations is a crucial component of taking ownership, some responsibility still falls to the employer.

“The employee shouldn’t have to worry about their employer seeing them as less productive if they request a workplace accommodation,” Jason states. “It’s the duty of the employer to ensure their managers don’t have that bias when an employee requests something that is their right to have.”

As Susan points out, creating an environment where people feel free to take ownership of their true identities requires a comprehensive, company-wide commitment.

“I do believe words have a real impact on people, so training has to go beyond just the HR department. Sensitivity training and education on etiquette has to occur at all levels of the business until an inclusive culture takes hold,” Susan insists. “Company websites must be accessible, and Disability Employee Resource Groups should be formed. Disability needs to be a clearly visible part of all diversity and inclusion efforts.”

Whether or not you’ve outwardly acknowledged your disability, you’re still a member of the disability community, an identity group that will only grow collectively stronger as more and more individuals embrace proud, unapologetic ownership. By shifting away from the concept of disclosure in favor of disability ownership, you’re helping to liberate and empower yourself and others, a responsibility we can all share and benefit from.

“If you act like it’s something to be ashamed of, then you’re just reinforcing the idea that it is something to be ashamed of,” Jason concludes. “But by owning your disability and making other people aware of its presence, you increase the visibility of disability and you make things much better for everyone.”

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