5 important ways to talk about disability during a job search

Looking for a job is one of the hardest tasks we face in our careers, and it can be even more challenging for disabled Americans.

Yes, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which just turned 27 years old, it’s against the law for employers to discriminate against people for any disabilities. Life, however, is rarely that simple.

The ADA provides some strong protections that require only two things from job-seekers: the candidate has to disclose his or her disability to the employer and ask for reasonable accommodations.

That deceptively simple checklist can be fraught, however, when it comes to the details. For instance, who do you disclose to? And when do you tell your potential employers: in the application, at the interview, after you get an offer, or some other time? And then what do you do if your employer disagrees with your requests?

We talked to some experts and asked them for their best advice on the web of responsibilities and rights that go along with the job search for disabled people.

We spoke to Curtis Richards, Director of the Center for Workforce Development at the Institute for Educational Leadership. The IEL works with young people with disabilities, caregivers and professionals to help disabled youth transition from high school to college and careers.

And Richards knows how hard the job market can be: As a young man before the ADA passed as law, he had wanted to be a journalist, but no editor would hire him due to his vision-related disability. Now he’s fighting to make sure no one else encounters the discrimination that he faced; or, if they do, that they know how to respond.

Here are five key things Richards says you should know about finding that accessible job of your dreams.

Know Thyself

Curtis helped create the 411 for Disclosing Disability, publication that starts by asking the prospective job seeker to know thoroughly what they may need for an ideal work environment. 

“The first thing they need to know,” Richards says, “is that all disclosure is personal.” The goal is to help people with disabilities think about their identities and needs, what accommodations might help them thrive in the workplace, and to take the reins for their own futures through self-determination. As the 411 says, “Self-determination is the desire, ability, and practice of directing one’s own life,” and it “empowers people to seek assistance when needed.” When people with disabilities learn to advocate for themselves, they often get much better outcomes.

Know exactly how the law protects you 

The ADA is an expansive law that offers protection for people’s rights “in the application process, in the interview process, in the offer process, and in the employment process.”

The tender spots: Everyone needs to understand what a “reasonable accommodation” is, but also what might be an “undue burden,” where an employer argues they can’t meet a specific request.

If you’re confused, one place to turn is the disability discrimination page at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Not only do they define your rights, but they might be a place to turn when things go badly. More on that in a moment.

Who do you talk to and what do you say?

You do have to tell some people at work about your disability if you want to access your rights. But you don’t have to start the job hunt by disclosing disability.

Richards says that the key is to think about whether, “there is a benefit to disclosing to somebody in a work setting. You don’t need to tell all your medical history [to everyone].” Human resources will need to know, as will your immediate supervisor, most likely. “And beyond that, you make a decision.”

For example, he says, “if your disability means asking your cubemate to pick up a pen on the floor because you can’t visually distinguish where it is,” you might want to tell them too.

One important thing to remember: your rights apply at any time that you decide you do need an accommodation. Even if you haven’t disclosed a disability previously, you can start the process at any time. This matters, because needs change over time, whether through changing circumstances, progressive disability, or the transitions that our bodies and minds make as we age.

What to ask for?

Accommodations are as unique as each person. Fortunately, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is here to help. It’s a collaboration between industry, West Virginia University, and the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the Department of Labor. They’ve put together an incredibly useful website – Ask JAN.

Here, you can search by disability, topic, or type of need to see how other people like you have sought accommodations in the workplace. You and your employer don’t have to invent a new system from scratch, but can turn to this site as your starting point to make sure the workplace accommodates you.

What to do when it all goes wrong

All of this has been pretty optimistic, but things don’t always go well. Sometimes, employers claim that accommodating your need would be an “undue burden.” Other times, they might want to substitute their idea of an ideal accommodation with another (perhaps cheaper) option. And in the worst case scenario, you might be discriminated against and get neither the accommodation nor the job. 

You’re not alone.

Richards says that if you think there’s a problem, start by finding an advocate trained in the ADA. They’re everywhere.

“There are ADA technical assistance centers all over the country. Independent living organizations all over the country. Protection and advocacy organizations all over the country.”

Richards is referring the to the Independent Living Networks. You can find them here by looking for services in your community, and Protection and Advocacy networks. Disability rights law has put experts  all over the country. Find them and use them! Call them and use them to get started.

If you want to file a complaint, call the EEOC or state labor agencies that are ready to defend the rights of disabled Americans to work. As a final resort, if nothing else works and the situation is important enough to your time and future, Richards adds, “you may want to get a lawyer.”

Whatever path you choose, being your own best advocate is the best start.