Job Application Strategies with a Disability

Working with Your disABILITY

by Kathleen Fullerton Bernhard, Ph.D. author of WORK WITH YOUR disABILITY

(for information about this book, email bernhard@u.washington.edu)

 

On July 20, 1990 President Bush signed into law the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a pivotal piece of legislation. This new law requires changes in both business and public facilities. Some of these changes are physical and cost money; others involve adopting new attitudes

toward people with disabilities.

Three major factors contribute to a tremendous opportunity for people with disabilities to become permanently entrenched in the work force:

First, the likely possibility that the shrinking labor pool of employment-ready personnel may create worker shortages during this decade. This will cause employers to effectively recruit and retain qualified employees. Since Americans with disabilities represent the largest single

block of potential employees, wise employers will court this underemployed community.

Second, a new wave of young Americans educated under the Handicapped Children Act of 1975 is graduating. This new generation will have improved educations and high expectations for themselves after graduating from high school and college. Thus, they will be more adaptable to competitive jobs than previous generations of the disabled.

Third, many graduating students who do not have disabilities have attended school with disabled classmates. Therefore, with the exposure, much of the discrimination in the work force will naturally dissolve.

The 1990’s offers less job security for many, but expands and enriches job possibilities for the disabled. You may be new to the work force or in the middle of a career change. In either case this decade will afford you a new job market as economic, political, and demographic pressures close down old opportunities and open up new ones.

When to disclose your disability

The decision to disclose your disability and when to do so may be the single most important consideration in your job search. This is a personal decision that has to be made for each job lead you pursue and will be based on the nature of your disability and your knowledge of the prospective employer.

When reviewing this issue, ask yourself this question: If I disclose my disability, will I be hired? If the answer is no, then don’t do it.

If, however, you feel the employer will hire you and make a fair and reasonable accommodation, then you may wish to consider how and when to inform the employer of your disability. Even though the law states you do not have to reveal your disability to a prospective employer unless it relates to the completion of essential job functions, you may want to be open on this subject. If you are initially candid, you may set the stage for enhanced regard by your employer. This disclosure may be viewed as a sign of character, strength, and confidence. How this delicate communication is made can be crucial to your obtaining the job.

Options:

At Referral

If you are one of the lucky job seekers to get a foot in the employment door through a referral, you don’t have to worry about disclosing your disability. The employer probably knows about your specific limitation. It is likely the individual who made the referral has bridged that gap before your interview. This is ideal because during the interview both you and the employer will likely be more comfortable.

But most people with disabilities do not have this advantage. The imposing question of when and how to tell employers can be very distressing. In a fair and reasonable world, you would be able to disclose your disability openly in your resume, cover letter and during the interview. However, we all know there is discrimination in the job market. Employers have biases and prejudices they might not even be aware of. These may be carried into the job screening process.

On Your Resume

Often your disability is reflected in your work history, education, and life experience. Rather than trying to hide your disability, phrase it with proactive words. Emphasize your adaptability, flexibility, and talents in the light of your disability. Use words that showcase your abilities. Keep in mind that you may lose a few job opportunities or offers if you run into the inevitable employers who are biased. But those employers are unlikely to be fair after you are hired anyway.

If you decide to disclose your disability in your resume, do not place it in the opening paragraph. Weave the information into your resume in a subtle manner.

In Your Cover Letter

Sometimes it is to your advantage to discuss your disability openly in a cover letter. For example, some employers specifically recruit the disabled to meet affirmative action goals or because they have a state or federal contract that requires hiring disabled.

Once again, as in the resume, do not start the cover letter with details about your disability. Follow the standard format for cover letters (see Cover Letters that Sell) and at the end of the second paragraph, describe your strengths and your limitations. Then continue describing how you will perform the essential functions of the job.

On the Application Form

Standard employment applications may be required. Some organizations require all job hunters to complete a standardized form. Most of the forms have a section for disability disclosure but this is not mandatory. You do not have to disclose your disability. You have the option but are not required by law to discuss any aspect of your limitation. The major drawback of disclosing at this point in the process is that you may not have room on the form to describe accommodations or how you overcome your limitations. This could be a disadvantage.

Large corporations often have a standardized disclosure form that can be completed with the general application. This is also optional for you. Think through the advantages of disclosing at this time and what you know about the particular corporation. Some corporations or employers are very supportive of disabled employees and this would be an appropriate time to disclose.

During the Interview

Shock is a common reaction if a visibly disabled person walks into an interview session and hasn’t adequately prepared the prospective employer. This shock factor can lead to mistrust and nervousness on the part of the interviewer. If your disability is highly visible (for example, being wheelchair bound, blind, walking with a cane), you may wish to prepare the employer beforehand.

A wise time to inform the interview of a visible disability could be the time when the interviewer personally calls to set-up an appointment. Do not disclose to a secretary or office assistant and hope the message is diplomatically relayed.

If, however, your disability is not overtly visible (for example, a learning disability or wearing a hearing aid), you do not have to prepare the interviewer.

After You’ve Been Offered the Job

Many people prefer to disclose after they have been offered the job on their talents, skills, and educational background. This may be temporarily distressful to the prospective employer but by that time you are hired and ready to begin work. You have passed the competition. If your disclosure changes the hiring decision and the employer retracts the offer, you are eligible to take legal action. The ADA does not allow this kind of discrimination. The only drawback to waiting is the employer may be unhappy about not knowing ahead of time and trust may be hampered.

After Beginning the Job

This strategy lets you shine on the job before having to disclose a limitation. If your impairment or limitation does not impact the initial work, this may be a solid choice. This option gives you time to make friends with co-workers, staff, and supervisors to strengthen your employment position.

Never

If you believe your disability will not impact the essential functions of your job, you may not want to tell your supervisor or boss. Smart job hunters know telling the employer can have tremendous effect on the success of the job search. Keep in mind this is not the time to educate an employer. You can do that after you have worked on the job for a length of time; or you may with never to do so. It is your choice.

Final Issues

Timing is important. If you catch the employer off-guard and shock him/her your chances of employment may be lessened. This possibility could be diminished if you ask yourself several questions to prepare yourself and your prospective employer:

Am I comfortable and confident that I can do the job tasks with my disability?

Can I rehearse my answers to the interview questions?

If I disclose my disability at this time and in this way, will I get hired?

Let’s look at these in more detail. Are you comfortable and confident that you can do the job tasks with your disability? If you have the skills, education, or background that the job requires, you may feel confident about your ability to do the job. But, are you comfortable explaining the details of your disability? Try role playing the situation. Have a trusted friend or family member pretend to be an interviewer with a list of questions. Then explain to the interviewer your particular disability, and how the disability will effect your work. Then list the benefits of hiring you. If you are uncomfortable, try it again. With a number of rehearsals, your comfort level will go up.

 

by Kathleen Fullerton Bernhard, Ph.D. author of WORK WITH YOUR disABILITY

(for information about this book, email bernhard@u.washington.edu)

 

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