How to Tell an Employer You Have a Disability

During my career as a career counselor I have had to deal with a number of career counseling clients who were concerned about disabilities. They asked me how to proceed.

First, I explained to them that by law employers are prohibited from asking, “Are you disabled?” The only question they can ask is, “Is there any reason why you could not fulfill the requirements of the job?” If the answer is, “No,” then there is no issue. If the answer is, “Yes,” then the employer is not just entitled to, but obligated to discuss the situation with you to determine what “reasonable accommodations” need to be made in order for you to be able to do the job.

Reasonable accommodations come into play in two circumstances: disabilities and religious observance. For example, if you have back problems and need a comfortable chair to do your job, it is reasonable for the employer to provide such a chair, as long as it is not something that costs thousands of dollars. In that case, you may have to provide the chair. If you are an observant Jew, and need to leave work earlier prior to the Sabbath, then the employer could insist that the lost hours be made up during the week. The employer, if considering you for a job that requires Saturday work, would not have to change programming to suit your religious needs and could, therefore, reject your candidacy because you could not fulfill the requirements of the position.

One client, a veteran, explained to me that he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress. (As an aside, veterans do not like the “D” because they don’t consider it to be a “disorder.”) He asked me what to do.

I told him that during the first interview to say, “I know you can’t ask me about disabilities, but I want to tell you because it will have an impact on my work. I can do the job, but I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress. It is totally under control. I take my medications and every other week I meet with my psychiatrist at the VA. The only special accommodation I require is an extra two-hours at lunchtime once every other week to make my appointment.”

A second veteran, who had served in Afghanistan, had trouble with bright lights. His “special accommodation” was to be permitted to wear sun glasses in the office. A third had been injured in his leg and needed at least three feet between his chair and the wall so that he could stretch out his leg. And a fourth veteran could not sit with his back to the door.

In all cases, the employers were grateful for the candidates’ honesty and literally laughed their concerns away. They all gave them exactly what they requested and were happy to do so. None of these was an issue. And, as with the following, they are all excellent examples of how candidates sometimes create problems in their own minds that don’t exist in reality. Employers simply don’t care about these things. They have non-disabled employees who cause them more grief and aggravation than the disabled ones!

Then there was a legally blind client. He was a candidate for, of all things, a job as a computer programmer. The man writes code. Until he told me, I did not know that he was legally blind. All he required was a six-foot long table and four electric outlets to plug in his equipment. He had everything he needed to do the job. And the employer could have cared less. As a matter of fact, the employer actually liked the idea of a visually impaired writer of code because he thought that the candidate would be extra careful with his work. Again, no problem.

Finally, and this was a first, I was meeting with a man who I thought was homosexual. Naturally, I did not ask him. It’s irrelevant and none of my business. We were having an interesting conversation. I noticed that we were going to go over the two-hours I give to each of my career counseling clients for our initial session. I asked him if he was pressed for time and he told me that he could go an extra half-hour but then had to leave to pick up his wife and daughter at the airport.

As he told me about his daughter he relaxed and asked me if he could raise a sensitive issue. Of course, I told him that he could and, if it was pertinent to employment, he should.

He then told me that he “suffered from moderate homosexuality.” That’s a quote; his words not mine. He wanted to know if he should mention it to an employer. I explained to him that people with disabilities are entitled to ask employers for “reasonable accommodations.” I also told him that “sexual orientation” was a protected class so he could not be discriminated against. But I warned him that if he were to ask for “reasonable accommodations,” the implication would be that he viewed homosexuality as a disability and many individuals would take exception to that.

He replied that that was not his concern. He had been “struggling” – again, his word, not mine – all his adult life with his homosexuality. With medication and counseling it was under control and he lived a “normal” – his word, not mine – life. But sometimes, when he got stressed he would need to contact his therapist for a phone conversation. (He meets with the therapist a few times a week, in the evening, so that would not be an issue for an employer.)

I mentioned to him a similar issue I had with another client who described herself as a “high functioning autistic person.” So I told him what I told her:

First, raise the issue with the employer after the first interview so you know that they are interested in you, and that you are interested in them. Second, clearly explain what “suffer from moderate homosexuality” or “high functioning autistic person” means. Third, tell them what “reasonable accommodation” you require. And, finally, and most importantly, use the disability as an example of how you have overcome an obstacle. i knew that it would make a powerful story. It did!

I am happy to report, all of these candidates found meaningful employment in their fields without having to make any compromises.

The moral of this story: Be upfront. Tell the truth. Hold your head high. Be proud!

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Don’t forget to take advantage of my year-end career counseling special. Come January, it will be gone!

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