Disclosing Disabilities in Job Applications

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Job search is stressful, but there are unique challenges when you are applying for positions as a person with a disability. As the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) indicates, only 35.9 percent of people with disabilities in the working ages of 16 to 64 were employed in 2016. If you are a job candidate with a disability, whether a visible or invisible one, you may be wondering what your rights are, what you are required to disclose and when, and how to go about navigating the application process. Below, I've shared considerations to think about as you embark on your job search.

What Does the Law Say?

In the US, persons with disabilities are afforded certain protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. When it comes to employment, the law aims to ensure fair treatment during the application process and in the workplace. For qualified applicants with disabilities, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations both during the interview process and once a candidate is hired, unless to do so "will cause 'undue hardship,' which is significant difficulty or expense." The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the organization that interprets and enforces the law in the workplace.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

Please note that it is up to you if and when to disclose, but here are a few thoughts to keep in mind. If your disability is part of your story -- the story that tells people who you are, what direction you see yourself going, and how what you have right now can get you there -- then perhaps you could include it in your application materials, specifically the cover letter. Being open from the beginning and emphasizing how your disability is a strength, not a weakness, may help you be a bit less anxious as you transition into the interview process. Disclosing can also help you determine whether an employer is a right fit. Keep in mind that in a world of social media and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, an employer may research you and know that you have a disability (if that's something you are vocal about on personal and professional platforms). As such, not making it part of your story may seem disingenuous.

When to Disclose?

Though you may choose not to mention the disability in your application materials, as you move to interviews, you may have to. That's especially the case if you have a visible disability. Since you don't want the interviewers to suddenly focus on the one thing you probably don't want them to focus on, it may be a good idea to mention the disability prior to the interview. Present it as part of your story and indicate how it makes you stronger and doesn't disqualify you from the role. In addition, should you need accommodations during interviews, it'd be difficult to request them if you don't disclose your disability.

If you have an invisible disability, you may choose to never disclose it or only disclose it to one person -- your direct supervisor, for example -- but if there are visible aspects to your invisible disability (slower walking pace, fatigue, and so on), by not disclosing, you may find yourself in an awkward position with your colleagues. Not knowing and understanding your situation, they may come up with a story about the you they see, which can impact your professional reputation. Take ownership of your story and tell it in a genuine way; you may still face disapproving attitudes but these won't be a result of hiding who you are. Disclosure can also help you find the employers who respect your story and the value you bring.

What to Disclose?

The choice is personal as to how much you want to disclose. The law prohibits employers from asking questions in the pre-employment stage that may disclose a disability. However, if you require an accommodation to ensure you perform at your best, you want to alert the employer ahead of the interview. Though you may need to provide a note from your physician confirming the qualified disability and the need for a reasonable accommodation, you don't need to share details about your disability. In other words, you may disclose that you walk with the help of a cane but don't need to explain why that's the case. The additional information is irrelevant.

When bringing up accommodations, you could offer your suggestions (based on previous experience) and ask the employer for their ideas. Be sure to emphasize your genuine desire to perform at your best and mention how the reasonable accommodation allows you to do so. Again, the focus needs to be on you and your ability to perform the role. Keep in mind that the ADA doesn't recommend specific accommodations, and what's considered reasonable varies across states, so empower yourself with knowledge. You are your best advocate! I strongly encourage you to check out resources and information provided by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) to educate yourself and gain confidence in navigating the process.

Final Thoughts

Similar to any other job candidate, your main goal is to show potential employers that you are qualified and excited for the role and that you are ready to bring value immediately. Before submitting applications, carefully review the job description and the role requirements, physical or otherwise, to confirm you are able to commit to the role. Though employers can't ask you questions about your disability, they can ask you to share or demonstrate how you can perform duties essential to the role, so you don't want to be caught off guard.

You want an employer that welcomes you and is willing to work with you because they see you as a valued candidate. If an employer is having issues with accommodations during the interview, this may not be the best place for you to grow as a professional. To avoid dealing with employers who are ignoring, stalling, or denying your accommodation requests, you may want to add disability-friendly to the list of characteristics you are looking for when researching potential employers. When you review job descriptions or employer websites, pay attention to language that indicates whether the companies are equal opportunity employers. For example:

Employer X is an equal opportunity employer and it is our policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, veteran status, political affiliation, genetics, or disability in the recruitment, selection, and hiring of its workforce. Reasonable accommodations are available to persons with disabilities during application and/or interview processes per the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lastly, as you grow and develop as a professional, focus on cultivating meaningful relationships with individuals and companies that know who you are and what value you bring so that opportunities come to you, and you never have to rely on job applications to communicate your qualifications.