Disclosing a Disability in a Job Search (With Samples)

If you have a disability or condition and are seeking a more flexible or remote job, you’re certainly not alone. But whether and how to disclose your situation during the job search is a difficult decision to make.

According to our annual survey of more than 7,300 professionals seeking remote and flexible work, 11% are dealing with a chronic physical issue or illness, and 4% say they live with mental illness. On a related note, 10% of those surveyed are caregivers for another person, and often the folks being cared for are differently-abled. The short story is that plenty of people in the workforce are impacted by disabilities, either their own or someone else’s.

But too often in the job search, people with disabilities, mental health conditions, or other circumstances that may be defined as a “disability” are confronted with the question of whether to disclose it to a potential employer.

So, what are your rights and responsibilities as a job seeker with a disability? What are you legally entitled to, or required to do? And how can you decide the best course of action for yourself?

Your Legal Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, does two specific things for professionals:

  • It makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against applicants or employees with mental or physical disabilities.
  • It requires employers to provide for “reasonable” accommodations if an employee or job candidate has a disability.

The catch, however, is that if you do not disclose your disability to an employer, they are not required to make those reasonable accommodations.

Employers also cannot ask you about your disability during the job interview process. That includes questions like:

  • “What’s your medical history?”
  • “Do you have any disabilities or mental health conditions?”
  • “How’s your health?”
  • “How often do you call in sick to work?”
  • “Have you ever gone to rehab?”

But here’s what they can ask:

  • “Are you able to perform the essential responsibilities of the job with reasonable accommodation?”
  • “Are you a person with a disability?” with answers like “Yes,” “No,” and “Prefer Not to Disclose.”

Technically, because the answers give you a chance to say you don’t want to disclose, this is a “voluntary” disclosure and is legal in certain circumstances—specifically when the answer may be used for affirmative action, where an employer may consider your disability as one reason to hire you (rather than not to hire you). Or, it can be collected for statistical purposes to track how many applicants of different backgrounds the company is receiving (without using the information for hiring decisions).

But from the applicant’s perspective, it might seem that choosing “Prefer Not to Disclose” is the same as choosing yes.

Should You Disclose?

According to Madeleine Burry at TheBalanceCareers.com, there are three considerations to think about when deciding whether and how to disclose.

1. Will you need any reasonable accommodations?

“Before putting in an application, review the job description carefully to make sure you will be able to do the core responsibilities and to get a sense of any specific accommodations that will help you do your job,” recommends Burry.

2. Will not disclosing make the process of applying for and landing the job more difficult or impossible?

“If failing to share information about a disability will make answering interview questions harder, that may be a good sign that disclosing early on is the right path for you,” says Burry. “Keep in mind that a disability can serve as an explanation for a gap in work history, too.”

3. Can you tell if the employer is supportive, publicly at least, of people with disabilities?

Look for signs on the company’s website that they support applicants or employees with disabilities. For example, Burry suggests looking for a message on the company’s career page that says something like, “If you have a disability or special need that requires accommodation, please contact us by emailing company@companyemail.com.”

DIVERSEability Magazine keeps a Disability-Friendly Employer Directory. And further research about a company’s reputation on a site like Glassdoor.com can reveal some helpful information.

When and How to Disclose

If you’ve decided to disclose your disability, you can do so at any time during the application process or any time while you’re employed. Not disclosing in the past doesn’t preclude an employer from providing reasonable accommodation in the present and future: Once you disclose, whenever you do so, they are required to provide those accommodations.

There are several things to consider when deciding how to time your disclosure:

1. Will the employer find information about your disability by researching you online?

More than 90% of recruiters search for applicants online. If your social media profiles, blog posts, LinkedIn activities, or other online presence makes it clear you have a disability, you may decide to disclose earlier in the process. This may allow you to better control and craft the employer’s perception of your disability because you’re starting the conversation and can provide context and supporting information about your strengths and best qualifications.

2. Will you need reasonable accommodations to perform the essential functions of the job?

If you know you absolutely will, it might be something you need to bring up once you’ve been offered a job. If you don’t believe you will need accommodations, you may not need to disclose unless that changes. Remember, you can request accommodations at any point during the application process, or during your employment—there are no limitations.

3. How much and in what ways do you want to disclose?

Haley Moss, a lawyer with autism, shared her own experiences in the article, “How I Disclose My Disability During a Job Search.” Moss writes:

“When searching for a job while finishing up law school, I learned that I had to disclose early on, either on the application itself or in an interview, because employers would likely Google my name, and my résumé would appear sparse if I removed disability-related content and experiences. Even after initial disclosures either on an application or in the interview process, I learned disclosure is not a one-time thing; rather, it’s an evolving conversation that varies as time goes on.”

Your initial disclosure is not the last conversation you’ll have, and it doesn’t need to include every possible detail and scenario imaginable.

4. What will you say?

Just like with a job interview question or conversation, it’s a good idea to prepare some thoughts ahead of time and practice them.

Moss recommends being brief and talking about your strengths and what you can do, rather than focusing only on what you can’t do. In what ways has your disability or health condition changed the way you work for the better?

5. What other information might you need?

Alberta ALIS, a Canadian career development and support organization, recommends preparing the following information before you talk to an employer:

  • Be positive. Focus on your skills and qualifications and don’t present your disability as a weakness.
  • Be prepared to address any concerns employers express, even if they’re not expressed directly.
  • Know what workplace accommodations you may need, including their availability and cost, and the funding programs the employer can access.
  • Anticipate the employer’s questions about your disclosure and know how you’ll answer them. Use examples.

Sample Disclosure Scripts for Different Situations

These samples come from two great resources: SoftSkillsBuilder and Indiana University of Pennsylvania Department for Disability Access and Advising.

For cover letters: “My experiences managing my own disability will enable me to provide exceptional customer service to buyers of your company’s assistive technology products.”

For scheduling job interviews: “I am excited to have the opportunity to interview with your company. As I have a vision impairment, I would appreciate it if you could provide a large-print job application form to me. Thank you.”

For scheduling job interviews: “Thank you for your call. I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the position. I do want to quickly mention that I have a noticeable facial disfigurement. It has no effect at all on my ability to perform the job, but I didn’t want to catch you by surprise.”

For during job interviews: “My physical disability has taught me to persevere when faced with challenges. If I’m having difficulty with something, I keep at it until I succeed. I don’t let myself get discouraged, and I never give up.”

For during job interviews: “You’re probably wondering how I am able to work on a computer since I have limited use of my hands. Well, I simply speak into a microphone, and a terrific software program does the typing for me! So, while I may not perform my job in quite the same way as my co-workers, I’m sure you’ll be pleased with my high-quality results.”

For larger conversations: “I have (list your key skills/abilities) and can perform the essential functions of this job, but sometimes (indicate your functional limitations) might interfere with my ability to (describe the duties you may have difficulty performing). I accommodate my functional limitations by (explain some ways that you accommodate your disability). It’s helpful if I have (describe the specific accommodations you need).”

For larger conversations: “I have a medical condition that sometimes interferes with my ability to ___________. In a previous position, I found that ____________ helped to minimize my problems in this area. I would like to discuss implementing a similar workplace accommodation here. I am confident that my experience, skills, and enthusiasm will enable me to perform the position of ________ successfully. I look forward to proving myself as a valuable member of your work team.”

By Alicia Hibbard
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