Disclosing Your Disability in the Job Search: Timing and Techniques

by Sharon Elber

Disability Job Search

Finding the right time, place, and method for disclosing your disability to a potential employer can add a great deal of stress to an already difficult experience: the job search.

Although everyone will confront the uncomfortable feelings of exposure and potential rejection, those of us with disabilities are likely to feel a heightened sense of risk during the application and interview process. This can undermine confidence, a critical aspect of showing off our best to potential employers.

Self-knowledge and preparation is key to negotiating when and how to disclose strategically. Honest evaluation, good timing, and proper research can all contribute to landing the next job in your career trajectory.

Start with an Honest Self Appraisal

When you take the time to verify to yourself that your disability will not impair your capacity to perform essential job responsibilities, you can better represent that fact moving forward. Authentic confidence that you are the right candidate for a job will shine through at each stage of the selection process.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. Think through what accommodations you may need, and decide if they are reasonable prior to investing your time and energy applying for a specific position.

Examples of common reasonable accommodations:

  • Restructuring job duties to reallocate marginal responsibilities.
  • Creating a flexible work schedule, provided it does not interfere with essential job duties.
  • The addition of technology or equipment that facilitates job performance, provided it does not represent an undue hardship on the employer.
  • Enhancing accessibility to work sites through physical structural changes (such as adding an accessible bathroom) or adjusting policies and procedures for accessibility (such as assigning a workplace in a more accessible location of the building).

During your self-appraisal, you may come across some nonessential duties that your disability prevents you from performing. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against you if you are not able to perform such marginal duties.

In fact, in most cases, making allowances by shifting these noncritical responsibilities constitutes a reasonable accommodation.

Be practical and specific in your appraisal. Consider making a written list of the job requirements and the relevant qualifications and experiences you bring to the table for each. The more specific you are at this stage, the more prepared you will be to address employer concerns when you are ready to disclose.

Listing specific examples of when you have performed relevant duties at past jobs is particularly useful as this will give the hiring committee a visualization of your skillset in action. This can directly contradict any preconceived notions about disability that may be silently operating in hiring decisions.

Emphasize Your Abilities

Emphasizing your ability is not unique to persons with disabilities in the job hunt. In fact, it is the first advice career advisors typically give anyone in a search. Even people without disabilities can struggle with feelings of guilt that come from showing only the best sides of themselves, feeling that it is vaguely deceptive to do so.

However, abled or disabled, employers know that candidates are trying their best to frame their accomplishments, qualifications, and abilities to best fit the job description. If you are feeling bad about that – get over it! There is nothing wrong with emphasizing your best characteristics at all stages of the selection process for your dream job.

Timing is Everything

Disclosing Your Disability on Your Resume

Generally speaking, there is little advantage to disclosing your disability in your application materials. Given that it is nearly impossible to prove discrimination at this stage of a search, there is little to prevent the implicit bias that can affect decision making when hiring committees select prospective candidates to interview.

Moreover, you will not have the chance to fully showcase your strengths, charisma, and mastery of the subtleties of the position you are applying for in your resume. Waiting until later in the hiring process gives you the advantage of contextualizing your disability relative to your experience, qualifications and passion for the work.

A possible exception to this general rule of thumb is if you believe your disability gives you some advantage over other candidates or if you suspect that the potential employer is actively seeking disabled employees. Examples include a position focused on disability awareness or government contractors keen on maintaining ADA compliance.

Disclosing Your Disability During the Interview

If your disability is going to be obvious to interviewers, for example if you have visible mobility impairment, then career experts suggest you address this directly, early in the interview.

In some cases, calling in advance to make sure accommodations are in place for the interview itself can be a way to make sure that you have a fair playing field such as wheelchair accessible interview space.  Many folks with visible disabilities find this can make the initial meet-and-greet with potential future colleagues go much more smoothly.

On the other hand, if your disability is not readily recognizable, then you have little reason to disclose at this stage of the hiring process. Again, even though discrimination against persons with disabilities is illegal, it is exceptionally difficult to prove during this phase of the selection process. This is precisely why you are not required to disclose your disability by law.

Disclosing Your Disability During Salary Negotiations

Once you have been selected for a new hire, it is much more difficult for an employer to discriminate against you because of your disability. That is why this is strategically the best time to disclose your disability in most cases, particularly if you are aware of specific accommodations that may be required from your employer.

Make sure you are prepared with clear and specific accommodations. If possible, provide examples of how employers have successfully accommodated you in the past.

How to Disclose your Disability

How and when you disclose your disability is ultimately your decision. Eventually, you will need to disclose so make sure that accommodations are dealt with before you start working.

Practice before your interview and be sure your disclosure statement includes the following elements:

  • Start and end with your ability relative to specific job requirements, not your disability.
  • Be solutions oriented. If you have overcome challenges and found workarounds for your disability in past jobs, highlight a few examples.
  • Overcoming challenges in your life is a chance to showcase a character trait that is helpful in any job. Don’t miss this opportunity to emphasize this asset to potential employers, especially if you can frame it as an advantage over other candidates.

Employer History with Disability

Finally, remember that seeking a job is not just about you being a good fit for the job, but the employer being a good fit for you. Research the company to find out if they have invested in attracting and retaining people with non-disqualifying disabilities.

A commitment to cultivating a diverse workforce may take several forms, including:

  • Producing outreach materials that confirm a commitment to a diverse workforce, with disabilities being specifically mentioned as an element of those efforts.
  • Look for programs in the human resource section of their website or in company press releases that reveal sensitivity to issues affecting disabled people in hiring, employee training, and/or retention.
  • Has the company contributed to or developed charitable programs that connect in some way to disabled populations? This can be a sign that the leadership of the company values the contributions that disabled people make, both in and beyond the workplace.
  • Read employee reviews of the company you are researching to see if there are any positive comments about the company’s performance relative to handling accommodations.

Alternatively, your research may reveal some red flags, including:

  • A poor track record with multiple class action lawsuits for disability or other forms of discrimination.
  • Persistent complaints from past or current employees with disabilities on employee review websites.
  • If you know people that have or presently work for the company that are aware of your disability, do not hesitate to be frank with them to get their perspective. Anecdotal red-flags may indicate systemic failures in the company culture to appreciate the capabilities of disabled people.

Keep a Positive Attitude

It can be challenging to keep a positive attitude when looking for work, regardless of ability. Remember that rejection is a part of finding the right fit, regardless of disability status. Invest your energy in preparation and research and be persistent in pursuing your career goals.

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