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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"What I've found and what other people find, particularly if they have visible disabilities, is that it's good to be forthright and empathetic to the employer. Don't try to ignore it or try to hide it. Recognize that the hiring manager might have concerns," says Chris Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

[See: 10 Myths About Workplace Rights.]

Being aware of the hiring manager's concerns could also help you determine the best time to disclose a disability. For instance, those with disabilities that affect their speech or hearing might want to alert the employer before a possible phone screening. Job seekers who use a wheelchair might find it's easier to explain this before a face-to-face interview to ensure the meeting place is accessible.

If your disability isn't visible but you'd still like to disclose it, you could choose to couch it within information about your qualifications and performance: "Perhaps even use that fact to help prove how you'd be an effective worker," Kuczynski suggests.

It isn't simply the burden of the job seeker to be conscientious, either: "To attract the best talent, hiring managers should ensure that job postings are advertised on various sites, including sites that are accessible and work with organizations, such as AAPD [American Association of People with Disabilities], to disseminate employment information," says TaKeisha S. Walker, director of workplace and leadership programs for the AAPD. "We encourage managers to work with both their human resources and diversity departments in order to prepare for interviews. You don't need to know what disability a person has before interviewing them, but you do need to think about your facilities and interview process to make sure that no one is excluded from fully participating in the process."

During the Interview ...

According to the ADA, a potential employer may not ask questions that could reveal the existence of a disability before making a job offer. For instance, it's unlawful to ask how many sick days you took on your previous job, about your prescription medications, or about any assumed medical conditions.

Employers may make some inquiries for "known disabilities," however. Known disabilities are defined as obvious and visible ones that an employer is aware of without the applicant ever having to mention them. A hidden disability that you've voluntarily informed the employer about would also qualify. "It's not lawful for the employer to ask a lot of probing questions about the disability. So for instance, they can't ask a lot of questions about the nature of the disability at the application stage. All they may ask is what type of accommodation you'd need to perform your job," Kuczynski states.

According to the EEOC website, "if the employer believes any applicant with an obvious disability will need a reasonable accommodation to do the job, it may ask the applicant to describe or demonstrate how she would perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation."

You may also ask for reasonable accommodation for the duration of the interview (for instance, if you'd like to use an interpreter). In those cases, it's also lawful for an employer to ask questions regarding what you'll need.

Occasionally, an ignorant interviewer may ask something inappropriate, in which case Kuczynski coaches that you simply state: "I'd really like to get back to my qualifications for the job."

[See: 25 Career Mistakes to Banish for 2013.]

Being Prepared

Those seeking a job, those offering a job, and those working a job—the entire workforce—should be aware of all employment civil rights. If you're interested in information on employment for people with a disability, however, Kuczynski recommends the EEOC website, as well as the Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org):

"JAN is a really good place for employees and employers to go as a free resource for advice on appropriate accommodation. If an employer has someone they're thinking of hiring and that person has a disability, or maybe even if the applicant doesn't know what's appropriate for them to request," he says.