You made it through your first year! If you are like most law students, your mind has turned toward looking for a post 2L summer job. The job search is complicated for many students, but for students with disabilities, the process can sometimes feel extra overwhelming. In 2011, the American Bar Association reported that 6.87% of its members identified themselves as having a disability. Many lawyers before you have confronted the issue of how and when to disclose their disabilities in professional settings.
Because each person with a disability has unique circumstances, the answer of how and when to disclose will vary. There are many potential upsides to disclosure, but concerns about the downsides are normal.
Should I Talk about my Disability in the Cover Letter?
The threshold question is “Do I need to disclose this in the cover letter?” I tend to err on the side of discouraging this when students ask, but there are certainly times when you will want to address the issue early. If you are applying for a position that is specifically seeking someone with a disability or someone from a diverse background, you should absolutely use the perspective you’d bring to your advantage in the cover letter. Generally speaking, for cover letters, I prefer students to focus on specific relevant strengths that match the job description.
Should I Bring my Disability up Before/During my Interview?
There is no easy answer to this question.
If you have a visible disability (think hearing aids, wheelchairs, guide dogs) you may not have a choice. Many have had great success letting the person who arranged the interview know that they will bring an assistive device or a service dog or some other assistance. This removes any shock factor (unfair, I know) from the interview and allows you to focus on the substance. On the other hand, it can be helpful to see reactions without that heads-up. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.
If you need an accommodation such as an ASL interpreter, a wheelchair accessible space, or a lower/higher table surface during the interview, you will need to let the interview coordinator know. Some accommodations require less notice than others, but typically, the sooner you ask, the better.
If you have an invisible disability you have a different decision to make. Your disability may require accommodations from day one at the workplace. Depending on the nature of the accommodation you require, you will need to weigh the benefit of disclosing as early as the interview or after you get an offer. Many 2L job offers are extended months before the start date, so if this applies to you, you have more flexibility.
Your interview is the time to showcase your strengths and accomplishments. If you do disclose your disability, remember to keep the focus on what you have already accomplished and how you will continue to accomplish things for the firm or agency.
Of course, you may never disclose your disability before starting. There is no rule requiring you to tell your employer anything at all. Weigh your options – if you stand to benefit from appropriate accommodations or if you will have to work harder because of your disability than your co-workers to do the same work, it would be worth disclosing. Summer jobs are like extended interviews. You want to show them how successful you would be as an employee.
I’ve Started the Job! Now should I Disclose?
It depends! If you are in this situation, you decided not to disclose during or after the interview. If the nature of your disability means that you cannot perform your job at the same level as your peers without accommodations, consider a conversation with your boss or the person responsible for providing accommodations.
Feeling nervous about this is understandable, but a summer job is a great place to practice a conversation you will likely have many times throughout your career. Depending on your work, the accommodation may be as simple as an amplified phone or a standing desk or an alternative work schedule. For others, the request might take a little more time to process. To help get around the nerves of asking for accommodations, practice what you will say. Discuss the ways you have worked around your disability at school and in other workplaces. Be specific and clear – this will make the process smoother.
Never feel as though you must disclose. If your disability is not affecting your work, there is no need to bring it up unless you want to. I don’t mean to imply that you should hide it. Rather, if it is something you would prefer not to mention, that is completely fine.
The advice here barely skims the surface. As I mentioned, every circumstance is individual. As a starting point, think about whether accommodations would help you, whether there is a safety reason or other benefit to you that would come from disclosing, and whether you are interested in assessing your employer’s culture of accessibility. Most importantly, use the summer to learn what works and doesn’t work for you so that you will be better equipped to find your ideal job down the line.
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