Disability Disclosure

In primary and secondary education, the presence of a disability that impairs a student’s ability to learn entitles that student to receive appropriate services and supports. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a student who is not progressing in class may be referred for a diagnostic evaluation to determine the presence of a disability. If a disability is diagnosed and special education services are needed, an Individual Educational Plan will be developed in order to provide the necessary services and supports. Students with disabilities who do not need special education services may be eligible for accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After students exit secondary education, they are no longer entitled to receive services on the basis of a disability that impairs learning; they "become eligible for adult services and supports based on [the] particular situation, [the] disability and [the] ability to disclose necessary information" (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2005, p. 4-5). Youth with non-apparent disabilities will need to decide whether to disclose their disabilities in order to receive accommodations and/or academic adjustments from employers and/or postsecondary educational institutions. Disclosure of a disability is a personal choice.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability by any entity that receives federal funding. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in private sector employment, state and local government activities, public places, transportation and telecommunications. Under the ADA, employers and postsecondary institutions may not ask about disabilities except under very specific conditions. If a person with a disability requires accommodations, he or she is obligated but not required to disclose the disability and accommodations to an employer or covered entity.

An employer or postsecondary institution may require an applicant, employee, or student who discloses a disability and requests accommodations to provide documentation of the disability and the need for the accommodation. The Summary of Performance may be used for this purpose if it contains the necessary information. However, employers and postsecondary institutions are not required to provide accommodations or academic adjustments if they will cause an undue hardship. They may offer alternative accommodations or options. (See Reasonable Accommodations in our A-Z Glossary).

Modifications and accommodations that students received in primary or secondary school may not transfer to postsecondary education or employment. For example, post-secondary institutions are not required to pay for disability evaluations or to "eliminate or lower essential requirements, or make modifications that would result in a fundamental alteration of the programs or activities being offered" (Monroe, 2007, p.3).

When an individual with a disability has made a decision to disclose in a postsecondary education or employment setting, he or she must decide what to disclose and when to do so. The Office of Disability Employment Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor (n.d.) advises that youth are not required to give details about disabilities and accommodations beyond:

  • How their disability impacts the capacity to learn and perform effectively; and
  • What environmental adjustments, supports and services they will need in order to access, participate and excel in their job, studies, community activities, etc.

There are specific conditions under which employers and covered entities may ask about or collect information on a disability. For example, the ADA permits an employer or covered entity to:

  • Ask questions about what job-related accommodations will be needed by a job applicant if it seems likely that an applicant has a disability and will require a reasonable accommodation. For example, an employer may ask a blind applicant interviewing for a position that requires working with a computer whether she/he will need a reasonable accommodation, such as special software, to read information on the computer screen.
  • Ask post-employment questions about disability and/or voluntary medical examinations as long as it is done for everybody in the same job category and such questions are job related and consistent with business necessity.
  • Conduct voluntary medical examinations, including voluntary medical histories, which are part of an employee health program available to employees at that work site.
  • Inquire into the ability of an employee to perform job--related functions. (U.S Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, 2004) 

The ADA prohibits:

  • Questions about physical or mental impairments or how they occurred (for example, questions about why someone uses a wheelchair)
  • Questions about the use of medication
  • Questions about prior workers' compensation history (U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, 2004)

Individuals with disabilities should carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing a disability. For example, individuals who decide not to disclose a disability are not subject to the legal protections of the ADA. An employee who does not disclose and is subsequently disciplined or fired for nonperformance of duties will not be protected by the ADA. Nor will a postsecondary student who does not disclose and fails a class or is placed on academic probation.

These are just a few of the regulations regarding disclosure and the responsibilities and restrictions of postsecondary education and employers. The references and resources listed below provide a wide range of information about individual rights and protections. School professionals are encouraged to become familiar with their contents in order to help students with disabilities learn about their rights and become better self-advocates.


The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A workbook for youth with disabilities
This workbook from the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth helps youth and young adults learn about disability disclosure, make informed decisions about whether or not to disclose their disability and understand how that decision may impact their education, employment and social lives. The workbook is based on the premise that disclosure is a very personal decision and it encourages young people to think about and practice disclosing their disability. The handbook is available online and in different formats for individuals with vision or reading comprehension difficulties. Hard copies may be purchased by contacting publications@ncwd-youth.info.

The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Families, Educators, Youth Service Professionals and Adult Allies Who Care About Youth with Disabilities
This workbook from the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth helps caring adults make informed decisions about 1) teaching a young person about his or her rights and responsibilities in disclosing a disability and 2) supporting a young person in becoming more independent and self-sufficient.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Titles I and V
The nation's first comprehensive civil rights law passed by Congress that addresses the needs of people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications.

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
AHEAD’s Website contains information for students and parents on disability documentation, civil rights, best practices, frequently asked questions and transition resources.

Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004
This Website is the U.S. Department of Education’s "one-stop shop" for information on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It contains links to the law, regulations, training materials, forms, presentation, guides and more.

Cyber Disclosure for Youth with Disabilities
This supplement to The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities provides suggestions for making informed decisions about disclosing disabilities online and for managing disclosure online.

Formerly DisabilityInfo.gov, this Website provides information to people with disabilities on federal and state benefits, civil rights, community life, emergency preparedness, employment, health, housing, technology and transportation.

High School and College for Students with Disabilities: Key Differences
This interactive table from Think College provides an instructive side-by-side comparison of high school and college in the areas of applicable disability law, required disability documentation, self-advocacy, parental role and accommodations and modifications.

Self-Disclosure and Its Impact on Individuals Who Receive Mental Health Services (pdf)
This 2008 publication from the Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, discusses the disclosure decision, self-disclosure of mental illnesses in employment, disclosure experiences and disclosure of other illnesses and situations. Interview responses and recommendations for the federal mental health system as well as public and private providers are also discussed.


Monroe, S. (2007). Dear colleague letter. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/about/offices /list/ ocr/letters/colleague-20070316.pdf

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2005). The 411 on disability disclosure: A workbook for youth with disabilities. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.ncwd-youth.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/411_Disability_Disclosure_complete.pdf

Office of Disability Employment Policy. (n.d.) Advising youth with disabilities on disclosure. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/odep/ pubs/fact/advising.htm

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2005). The Americans with Disabilities Act: A primer for small business. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/ publications/adahandbook.cfm