January 17, 2010
Able to work: Consider when to reveal disabilities to prospective employers
Pat Leahy’s resume is sprinkled with relevant skills and achievements. Although he doesn’t note his blindness since birth, he often wonders when to disclose it to potential employers. Should he tell them before the in-person interview or simply walk in with his guide dog?
“I’m still finessing it and trying to figure out what works best,” says Leahy, 35, who lives in Washington, D.C., with his yellow Labrador retriever, Galahad. After 11 years in public policy, Leahy seeks a management position in the nonprofit sector or government operations.
Experts suggest it’s best to wait to bring up the topic until it becomes relevant to the discussion -- and to be forthright about the assets such applicants can bring to that employer.
“Keep an application positive. The best thing you can do is to get selected on the merits of your qualifications,” says Joshua Rose, an employment lawyer in Washington. “Once the employer determines you’re qualified, it would be unlawful for them to reject you because of your disability, unless you’re unable to do the job.”
A radiologist, for example, can’t read X-rays if a visual impairment obscures shades of gray, but perhaps the doctor could manage a medical practice.
The Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy offers these suggestions for those with disabilities:
Before an interview, practice your responses to anticipated questions.
Emphasize your strengths and tell the employer how you would get the job done.
If your disability can’t be reasonably accommodated, talk with a counselor to identify jobs or careers that match your skills and interests.
For more information, visit www.dol.gov/odep.
Many job seekers with disabilities can perform the required tasks. They should sell themselves by anticipating interviewers’ concerns and addressing them. Employers may fear inquiring about a disability’s impact on work, so questions often remain unanswered, says Jeanne Patterson of Tallahassee, Fla., a professor emeritus and administrator of the National Rehabilitation Counseling Association.
There may be no need to mention a disability unless an employment gap calls for an explanation. Another reason to reveal a disability arises when an applicant has to request an accommodation for the interview. For instance, Patterson said, a candidate who is deaf or hearing-impaired may ask the company or vocational agency to arrange for an interpreter.
An employer has to provide reasonable accommodation unless it would impose undue hardship, usually a significant expense or difficulty, says Lisa Banks, a disability lawyer in Washington. At a small business without an elevator, for example, a candidate in a wheelchair could request a meeting on the ground floor.
Job seekers may want to research employers before applying. Some large corporations are very open to hiring people with disabilities, says Scott Truax, a San Antonio-based program manager for the CareerConnect and FamilyConnect Web sites of the American Foundation for the Blind. The foundation has created a series of videos showing employers how blind and visually impaired individuals use adaptive software at work.
“A disability is not a detriment; it’s a benefit,” says William J. Freeman, president and founder of the American Disability Association and a lawyer in Birmingham, Ala. “People with disabilities provide vast diversity in the workplace.”
Freeman, 45, speaks from experience. He received a diagnosis of cerebral palsy as a toddler and eventually underwent about 30 surgeries.
“The ability to overcome huge obstacles tends to be something that most employers want in their workforce,” he says, “especially during a global economic crisis.”
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