A How-to Guide on Job Searching With a Disability

Many job seekers and employers are unsure of what they can and cannot ask.

Woman in wheelchair working on laptop computer
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In the series premiere of Downton Abbey, the character John Bates arrives at the series's eponymous home walking with a cane, and is introduced as Lord Grantham's new valet. The existing household staff express everything from confusion to awkwardness to dubiousness and even anger that someone with a physical disability could have been hired for such an esteemed position in a large aristocratic estate. At one point in the episode, Bates is temporarily dismissed when staff members manage to convince Lord Grantham that the valet is incapable of performing his duties properly.

Even though Downton is a fictional television program set in class-struck Great Britain in the early 20th century, its Bates storyline isn't far off the mark when it comes to the present-day dynamics of hiring employees with disabilities, then accommodating them in the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability when it comes to job application procedures, hiring, training, advancement, employment privileges, firing, and more. The act defines an individual with a disability as someone with a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities, someone who has a record of this impairment, and who is regarded as having such an impairment. That includes more noticeable disabilities like blindness, but also less apparent ones like autism, and even illnesses that might substantially affect life activities, such as cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy.

But more than 20 years after the U.S. Congress first enacted the ADA, job seekers with disabilities still encounter material challenges. Some who are new to the job market remain unsure about if, how, and when to reveal they have a disability. Being unsure of how an applicant's disability might affect their productivity and reticent to ask questions that could be seen as inappropriate, employers often overlook or avoid such candidates altogether.

The apprehension on both sides contributes to unfortunate statistics: The Labor Department reports the employment-population ratio for people with disabilities was 20.8 percent in January 2013. Their unemployment rate was 13.7 percent, well above the 8.3 percent unemployment rate for people without disabilities. Employed people with a disability are more likely to work part-time, largely because their hours were cut back or because they were unable to find full-time employment.

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Here are some tips to help both job seekers and employers overcome some of the awkwardness they may feel in the hiring process:

When Applying for a Job ...

Disclosing information about a disability is a personal decision, and it's not illegal to withhold that information if that's your preference. But if your disability requires particular workplace accommodations (referred to as "reasonable accommodation" in the ADA), it might be courteous and in your best interest to give the employer a heads up, says Vicki Salemi, author of Big Career in the Big City, host of Score That Job on mediabistroTV, and a career and workplace expert with corporate recruiting experience (vickisalemi.com).

Remember that the hiring process allots for employers to find the most qualified candidate and for job seekers to prove their qualifications. If giving evidence of your skills means being transparent concerning your disability and the modifications you'll need, then it's prudent to do so. "You want to set yourself up to succeed and make sure that you can do the job well," Salemi says. "For instance, if you know you need a particular type of computer software or a special keyboard and you don't ever reveal that, you'll get to work your first day and not have what you need to be productive."

An example of some reasonable accommodation requests would be adjusted duties, a modified work schedule, an alternative work site, the use of interpreters, accessibility software, or adaptive equipment.