Telling people you’re disabled: clear and easy guide for students
Disability Rights UK Factsheet F54
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It can be hard to tell people about you and your needs as a student or an employee. For example, if you’re disabled or have a condition that needs support, you might not want people to know.
One positive reason to tell people is so you can get the right support at university or college. A good place to start could be your personal statement when you apply.
Universities and colleges should give you lots of chances to tell them about your needs. This should happen when you first apply and also later when you start your course. There should be a person at university or college to help you and give you support. This person might be called the Disability Adviser or Learning Support Coordinator.
You might have a condition that no one can see. For example, you might have a mental health condition that you want to keep private. Some people worry that if they tell the university or college they will be treated in a different way.
Only you can decide what you want to do and what is best. You can get advice about what to do from a careers adviser or from a Work Coach at your local Jobcentre plus.
1. The Equality Act
Disability discrimination means being treated in a different way because you are disabled. In the 1990’s, laws about disability discrimination started to become stronger. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is a law that came into force in 1995. As time went on the law changed to give more protection to disabled people.
The Equality Act is a law that started in 2010. It took over from the DDA. The Equality Act supports the rights of disabled people and gives them more protection from being treated in an unfair way. The Equality Act says that places of education and employers must make things good and fair for disabled people. This means giving them the right support and making changes if they need them.
The Equality Act covers lots of different disabilities and conditions. It includes people with learning difficulties like dyslexia and people with mental health conditions like depression. You do not have to be physically disabled to be protected by the law. You do not have to say you are disabled to be protected but it might help you get the right support if you do.
Education providers are places where you go to study and learn new things, for example at a university or college. Education providers should make changes for disabled people if they need them. These changes are called reasonable adjustments. The college or university should make changes for all disabled people. They should think about what disabled people need in advance. This is not the same for employers. They only need to change things when they know about a person and their disability.
With most types of discrimination, you need to show that the education provider or employer knew (or should have known) that you are disabled. They should not wait for this to happen. They should find out about you and what you need before you go to college or university. This is called taking reasonable steps.
Reasonable steps means things like
- finding things out about your disability on a job application form
- using information from the UCAS or college application form
- asking about you on your enrolment form before you start your studies
Your employer might ask questions from time to time to keep up-to-date with staff and what they need. This might happen in private with someone who works in Human Resources. Human Resources are in charge of everything to do with staff and what they need.
At college or university disabled student services staff can help to make sure that the education you get as a disabled person follows the law. This means making the changes you need and putting reasonable adjustments in place. Most colleges and universities know how important this is.
The next section gives you more information on telling people about your disability. It explains what happens when you apply to study. You will see that there are lots of positive reasons why you can choose to tell people about your disability. However, it is always up to you what you decide to do.
2. Keeping things private
You have a right to keep information about your disability private. This kind of information is kept safe by the Data Protection Act. This is the law to do with keeping personal information private and confidential. It means that information about you cannot be passed to someone else without you agreeing it is OK.
You can ask for information about you not to be passed on. You need to make this clear when you fill out any forms. Colleges and universities should have a policy that says which members of staff at the university or college will be told about your disability. This might include the disability adviser, your personal tutor or teacher, the exams officer and individual lecturers.
You might say you do not want anyone to know about your disability. Education providers and employers still have to try and changes for you. It might be that different changes are made. For example, you might record a lecture and listen to it later rather than have someone taking notes for you in the room.
3. Reasons for telling people you’re disabled
3.1 Employment and education are covered by the Equality Act
The law says that an employer or education provider cannot stop you from getting a job or studying on a course because you are disabled. They cannot stop you because they don’t want to make adjustments or changes either.
If you say in your application that you are disabled but then feel you have been treated badly or unfairly, you can make a complaint. You can use the Equality Act to make this complaint.
If the employer or education provider can say that they didn’t know you were disabled, this might make the case for your complaint weaker.
You can read more about this in the Disability Rights UK factsheet Understanding the Equality Act: information for disabled students.
3.2 Most employers and all education providers should have equal opportunities policies
Most employers and education providers have policies to say they will treat people in an equal way. This is called an equal opportunities statement or policy. Having a policy like this means they are making a commitment to be fair to everyone – when they go for a job or when they apply to study. You might feel more comfortable about saying you are disabled if you know what is in the policy.
In higher education, colleges and universities should have a Student Charter. The Charter says what they are doing for students. It might have a section on equality and diversity. You could ask for information to do with another law called the Public Sector Equality Duty. This law says that education providers should publish what difference its policies are making to staff and students. You could look at the university’s Student Charter.
3.3 Some employers really want to employ disabled people
The Disability Confident scheme includes a badge which shows the employer has made certain commitments, for example:
- making suite their recruitment process is fair
- supporting any employee who becomes disabled to stay in work
- offering work experience to disabled people
Other employers may have a ‘positive about disabled people’ symbol (with 2 ticks)
If a job advert has either symbol, it means the employer guarantees you an interview if you meet the basic requirements listed in the advert.
Look out for positive things about disability or treating people equally. In some cases, having a disability might be seen as having an extra qualification to do the job.
3.4 It’s an opportunity to describe your disability positively
You may have developed skills through your own experiences that are useful in the job or on a course. For example, having a personal assistant might have helped you learn about organising and communicating. It might have given you a chance to manage your own money or a budget to pay for support.
You can use this as an opportunity to talk about being disabled in a positive way. Admissions officers and recruiters look for things about your character and things you have managed to do. They want to see examples in your life where you have been determined and used your skills to sort things out.
3.5 Some courses and careers might ask you more about your health as part of the application
If you want to study medicine, nursing or teaching, you might be asked about your health. There are rules called ‘fitness to practise’ set by professional bodies to try and make sure people will be able to do the job. These checks are to do with health and safety requirements and the things you would have to do as part of that career.
You might have to fill out a health questionnaire or have a health check. However no one should assume that a disabled person cannot become a teacher or work as a health professional. Making changes for disabled people to do the job must be part of the health check or assessment.
3.6 There is money to help pay for changes or adjustments
In education and employment there is money to help pay for changes or adjustments that you need. Employers especially might not know about this.
In further education, colleges get money to make changes and provide reasonable adjustments. In colleges this is called Additional or Extended Learning Support (ALS or ELS).
In higher education, you might be able to get Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs). This is money that can help pay for the cost of extra equipment, non-medical help or extra study support. Recent research shows that disabled students who receive DSAs get better final grades than other disabled students who decide to do things on their own without support.
When you start a job, you can apply to the Access to Work scheme run by Jobcentre Plus. This is money to help pay for specialist equipment, support workers and extra transport costs. Employers can also get free advice on changes that might be made to the workplace so a disabled employee can do their job. They may be able get this advice from the Work Coach at the local Jobcentre Plus.
To find out more, read the Disability Rights UK factsheets
- Funding further education for disabled students
- Funding higher education for disabled students
Available from our factsheets page.
3.7 Adjustments and changes can be put in place earlier
The earlier you tell people, the easier it is for adjustments or changes to be ready when you start your course or job. Talk to the disability adviser or Human Resources department about adjustments you need before the course or job starts. They can sort things out and get things ready before you start working or studying.
3.8 You might build a better working relationship
A working relationship is usually better when people feel they can be open about things. You might want to wait until you have been at a place for a while and built up good relationship with your supervisor or tutor before you tell them about being disabled.
3.9 You might need to explain some things in your CV or application form
Being disabled might mean there are things in your CV or working life that need to be explained. For example, you may have a gap in your education or career because you were ill or had to retake an exam. It may help to explain the situation so everyone knows what happened.
3.10 Your information is confidential
Information about being disabled is protected by the Equality Act and the Data Protection Act. It is personal and sensitive information that cannot be passed on to other people without you saying this is OK. It needs to be treated as confidential.
4. Reasons against telling people about your disability
4.1 You may be worried that people will treat you differently
You may feel that getting a job or going on a course will be harder if people know you are disabled. You might worry that employers and education providers will see you as a problem and will cost them extra money.
4.2 You may be worried that people will only see you as disabled
You may feel that an employer or education provider will only think of you as disabled and nothing else. They might not look at the things you can do and the skills you have.
4.3 You may not want to talk about what it is like to be disabled with a stranger
You may feel that an application form does not give you the right space in which to say what you want to. It can be hard to put into words what you really want to say about yourself.
4.4 You may feel that being disabled makes no difference to you being able to do a job or go on a course
You may feel that being disabled has nothing to do with doing a job or studying a course so there is no reason to mention it. This is fine but remember that you might need changes or adjustments to be made at some point in the future if your job or course changes in some way.
5. When is the best time to tell people?
After thinking about everything and weighing it up, you might decide the best thing for you is to tell people you are disabled. The next thing to think about is when and how to do this.
On the application form
Some application forms ask direct questions about being disabled. You can write down the answers you think are important. For example, the UCAS online application form has a drop-down menu and a section where you can say if you need any extra support to study.
You may feel that your life as a disabled person has given you life experiences that will help you to do well. You may want to say why you think you are a good person for the job or the course.
Questions about your medical history
You may be asked direct questions about being disabled and your health on a questionnaire. This will depend on the type of job or course you want to do.
Some jobs like becoming a teacher, doctor or a nurse will need you to be able to do certain things. You might be asked questions about this as part of an assessment called Fitness to Practise. You will have to answer these questions honestly.
At the same time as asking questions about your health, employers and education providers should look at any changes or adjustments which might make it easier for you to work.
The Equality Act 2010 law says that everyone should be treated in a good and fair way. An employer cannot ask you things about your health that are nothing to do with the job.
Filling out an equal opportunities form
Some employers might want you to fill out an equal opportunities form. Equal opportunities mean giving everyone the same chances. Employers want to see who is applying for jobs and if they come from different parts of society. Doing this can help make things fairer for different people including disabled people.
The form is not about you and what you can do. An equal opportunities form is separate from a job application form. The HR or Personnel department are in charge of these forms. The people who interview you will not see these forms. They will only be interested in your skills and what you can do.
Covering letter or personal statement
If you need to provide a covering letter with your CV or a personal statement with your application form, you could mention your disability in this. It could also be mentioned in your CV, for example if you have been to a school or specialist college for disabled people.
Before going for an interview
If you get an interview for a job the employer or education provider should sort out any support you need. For example, you might need someone to sign for you or you might need help to get to the interview. It is much easier for people to arrange things if you tell them what you need in advance.
This shows you can manage your own situation well and will help you feel more relaxed in the interview.
At the interview
If you have not told anyone before you go to an interview, they may be surprised if they realise you are disabled. If the interview is done properly and fairly, this should not be a problem. However some people might ask questions that you could have already answered on the form. The interview might focus on being disabled rather than what you can bring to the job or the course.
You might find it hard to talk about being disabled at the interview. It might be easier to write it down on the application form so the employer or education provider know you are disabled before they meet you. This can help you and them prepare for the conversation. It means you can focus on doing well in the interview and not focus on being disabled.
On the other hand, you may feel happy to tackle this kind of question in an interview. You may be better at talking in person, rather than putting things in writing.
6. Taking control of the situation - key points when telling people about being disabled
- Don’t think every employer or education provider will see being disabled as a bad thing.
There are lots of companies that want to make things easier for disabled people to work. The Disability Confident badge is given to organisations that want to make things better for disabled people. Other employers might have a good equal opportunities policy but might not have the badge yet. Find out as much as you can about employers you want to work for.
Colleges and universities have a disability adviser or someone else who can give you support and advice about your course. This might be the first time you have had to tell a new place or person you are disabled. Remember the college or university will have had lots of disabled people studying with them before.
Telling people about being disabled can be a good thing and give you more control. Knowing about being disabled could be a strength that the college or university could use.
- Being disabled: what you have learnt.
Think about all the things you have learnt through being disabled. What skills could you use at work or on your course? Some application forms ask you questions about things you are good at and things you are not so good at. You can use these things as a good example of how to turn a negative into a positive.
For example, you might have lost some of your hearing but this means you are very good at concentrating.
Being honest about yourself and things you can do shows you are mature and ready to face new challenges.
- Don’t just focus on being disabled in your interview
Try to be positive and enthusiastic in your interview. Don’t focus on hard things about being disabled. Of course there may be some but the interview is to find out about you and all the things you can do.
7. After you start your job or course
After you start your job or course, you may find that some people are different with you. For example, they might not know how to be around disabled people. They might say or do something that upsets you.
People may ask lots of questions about your disability. This can be a good thing if they are asking about the kind of support you might need. For example, if you need a larger print or better lighting to work.
You may also have to deal with personal questions about being disabled. For example, people might ask you about physical things like your legs or ask when you became disabled. They may not think about some of the less obvious things - like on some days you might feel better than others.
This kind of situation can be very awkward for some people. Try to be as relaxed as you can. This can help other people to relax around you. However, offensive comments or taunts about being disabled are against the law. If this happens, you should speak to your line manager at work or the disability adviser at your university or college. Remember that you are protected by the Equality Act and there will be a way to complain that follows the law.
8. Further information
If you are worried about might happen when you get a job or start studying, talk to your employer or the disability adviser at your university or college.
If you have already left university or college you can still use their careers service. If you have moved, you can use the service at your nearest university. You should be able to visit and use the service for up to three years after you finish your degree.
A careers adviser can take you through all the options that getting a degree has given you. They can help you decide which direction you want to go in. You might get charged for some of the services like careers interviews and using the careers library.
If you have a Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan, local authorities in England should still give you careers advice up until you are 25 years old.
You could use the National Careers Service. Young people aged 13-18 years can call 0800 100 900 FREE for advice or email questions to them through their website.
If you are an adult aged 19 and over (or 18 and receiving an out-of-work benefit), you can also get face-to-face advice and guidance. You can do this in person with an adviser. Call 0800 100 900 FREE to make an appointment at your nearest National Careers Service Centre.
You can also get careers advice from Skills Development Scotland and Careers Wales.
Association of Disabled Professionals
Association of Disabled Professionals
Tel 01204 43163801204 431638
Provides support and advice on careers, work, employment issues, starting and growing a business.
Blind in Business (BIB)
Blind in Business offer a range of services to people who are studying and people who have got their qualification already. They also help employers. BIB help to make it easier to move from studying to getting a job for people who are visually impaired.
You can get in touch with them by
Tel: 020 7588 1885020 7588 1885
Disability Rights UK Student helpline
For further information on the support that is available for disabled students, please contact our Disabled Students Helpline - 0800 328 50500800 328 5050Â FREE.
We also produce a range of education factsheets covering these subjects and frequently asked questions which you can access through the education and skills section of our website at disabilityrightsuk.org.
9. Useful resources
Choosing your path
Disclosure: it’s a personal decision
This book is published by the University of Western Sydney, Australia. You can read it online by going to the website below. It has information about your choices and options when you want to tell employers and education providers about being disabled. www.westernsydney.edu.au/choosingyourpath
This booklet is published by AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, based in Ireland. It suggests ways to tell people you are disabled. This is sometimes called disclosure. The booklet also has a useful self-assessment checklist. You can get the booklet from this website
Do you have a disability - yes or no? or is there a better way of asking?
This publication is available here http://usemyability.com/resources/files/Do%20you%20have%20a%20disability_yes%20or%20no.pdf
Evidencing equality: approaches to increasing disclosure and take-up of disabled students' allowance
This booklet is published by the Equality Challenge Unit and is available from this website www.ecu.ac.uk
Finding out about people’s disabilities: A good practice guide for further and higher education institutions
You can get this booklet by going to http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/16294/ Opening up work: The views of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions
Published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and available from www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/working-better/disability-report/opening-up-work
Should you tell your employer of your disability?’
Series of videos, mainly about Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs), also includes a video discussing the question of telling employers about your impairment.
Disability Rights UK publications
- Adjustments for disabled students
- Careers and work for disabled people
- Making a complaint
- Understanding the Equality Act: information for disabled students
Get back to where we do belong – an employment skills guide for people with newly acquired disabilities or health conditions includes sections on managing change, what to expect from employers, careers information and advice, education and training, getting support from other disabled people and welfare benefits. Available as a free download at www.disabilityrightsuk.org/sites/default/files/pdf/GetBack16.pdf.
The Equality Act
Copies of the Act are available from The Stationery Office.
The Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) has produced practical guidance together with examples which explain the Equality Act.
What equality law means for you as a student in further or higher education
This publication is available from:
Technical guidance for further and higher education providers is available at:
EHRC publications are good guides to what should happen and they can be used to help decide legal cases.
10. List of explanations
Additional or Extended Learning Support (ALS or ELS)
The extra support you can get at college with any disability-related needs. Colleges receive money to help pay for this.
Being treated in a different way because you are disabled.
Disabled student services
The people in a college or university who help make sure that you get the support you need as a disabled person.
Places where you go to study and learn, for example a college or university.
A law that started in 2010 to make things fair for everyone. It took over from the Disability Discrimination Act.
The people in a company who are in charge of everything to do with staff and what they need.
Changes for disabled people to make it easier for them to access education and work.
Rundip Thind and Tony Stevens
1 September 2016