This guide is for applicants who may need to discuss a disability-related job issue in an employment interview. I’ve written it in an easy-to-follow, question-and-answer format. My hope is that it will help qualified persons with disabilities take advantage of more employment opportunities, help employers make more informed hiring choices, and reduce the level of discrimination and litigation that has been associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
QUESTION: What are the benefits of bringing up the subject of my disability in an interview?
ANSWER: When it is done correctly, the main benefit is that it can help you get a “reasonable accommodation” to do the job, if you are otherwise qualified for it. Bringing this subject up to employers informs them of your need for the accommodation and obligates them to consider it.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it really is. The main focus of any interview is who you are, what you can do and why the employer should hire you. The issue of disability and need for accommodation does not change that in any way.
QUESTION: What is a reasonable accommodation?
ANSWER: It is some change in the job or the interview/evaluation process that takes into consideration your disability-related job limitations and either enables you to do the job or to be properly and fairly evaluated for it.
In the interview these accommodations could be as simple as providing a sign-language interpreter for someone who is deaf or hearing impaired. It could be giving more time for someone to complete a test if they have a learning disability, or assisting someone to fill out an application if they have cerebral palsy and cannot do it on their own.
On the job, an accommodation could be changing the work schedule for someone who needs medical treatments, acquiring equipment such as a blinking tele phone or TDD for someone who is deaf or hearing impaired, or changing the way that work is traditionally done, while making sure that it does get done.
You should study what the ADA says about reasonable accommodation. One important thing to remember is that an employer may be obligated to provide an accommodation only if it is not an undue hardship on the business to do so. Reducing performance standards below that of other employees is not considered to be a reasonable accommodation. If an accommodation will not allow you to perform the essential functions of a job, then you are not qualified for the position.
QUESTION: How can I determine if I need a reasonable accommodation? What are the essential duties of the job for which I am applying? Does my disability interfere with my ability to perform these functions satisfactorily?
ANSWER: You should consider these two things:
Your job counselor or placement professional should be able to tell you the essential functions of the job to which he or she is referring you. Essential functions are those that are important and fundamental to the job, not those which are incidental.
If the person placing you does not know the job’s essential functions, then you and your counselor may be able to speculate based on general knowledge of the field or vocation. In this way, you may be better prepared. But keep in mind that each employer may want a job performed differently, and a job’s description can change from employer to employer, and even from department to department within the same company.
When in doubt, ask what the essential functions of the job are. You may have to decide if any accommodations will be needed and when would be the best time to discuss them. Working with the placement organization, you should be able to determine exactly which accommodations you would need.
Applicants who inform employers that they will need a reasonable accommodation do themselves and the employer a favor.
QUESTION: What if I cannot do one of the “marginal” functions of the job?
ANSWER: If you cannot do a marginal function because of your disability, then the employer has the option of accommodating you so that you can do it, or “forgiving” you the function, which means not requiring you to do it. The employer may not consider your inability to perform the marginal function in the hiring decision.
However, if your inability to perform the marginal function has nothing to do with your disability, then the employer can consider it as part of your qualifications, and evaluate your inability to do it as he or she would with any other applicant
Example: If being able to drive a car was a marginal function of a job and an applicant could not drive because he or she had epilepsy, then the employer could not hold it against the applicant. If the applicant could not drive simply because he or she never learned to drive, then the employer could consider it as a concern for evaluation in the hiring decision.
Therefore, when it comes up in an interview that you cannot do a marginal function of a job because of your disability, it is important that you make it clear that the inability is disability related, so the employer will not hold it against you in the employment decision.
QUESTION: What if I feel that the employer does not have a right to know about my disability?
ANSWER: An employer is prohibited from making disability or medical inquiries or examinations of an applicant in an interview. They may not ask about current or past medical conditions and, unless a job is offered, may not have an applicant submit to a medical examination unless all applicants who receive a conditional job offer for that position are required to have the same examination.
You should keep in mind that there is a difference between your “disability” and any disability-related work limitations. Information about your disability includes: its definition, how you acquired it, how it affects your life, its prognoses, any medical treatments, etc. Employers generally have neither the right nor the need to know these things.
Disability-related job limitations and your need for accommodation is another issue. If you request a reasonable accommodation, or if the employer cannot evaluate how you can perform the functions of the job with your disability, then that information might be needed by the employer to properly evaluate and accommodate you.
The information the employer should be given should be limited to what is called the job-related “manifestation of the disability.” Put more simply this means how it affects your ability to do the job. You can discuss this aspect of your disability with the employer without revealing the more personal aspects of your condition.
Example: The employer might have the need to know how the applicant who uses a wheelchair will perform some of the job functions while using the wheelchair, and whether the applicant will need a reasonable accommodation to perform those functions. At the same time, the employer might not have a need to know why the applicant is in a wheelchair, the nature of the injury or illness, the medical prognoses of the condition and how the disability affects the applicant off the job.
If you feel uncomfortable about an employer knowing anything about your disability, it is your right not to discuss or disclose it. But remember, the employer only has the obligation to accommodate known disabilities. Refusing to assist the employer with information about your abilities, limitations and need for accommodation only hinders the employer’s ability to successfully evaluate and accommodate you.
Ultimately the decision is yours, but the question is, “Are you doing everything you can to maximize your employment potential and help an employer hire you?”
QUESTION: When does the issue of my disability come up in an interview?
ANSWER: While the employer does not have the right to make general medical inquiries of applicants, employers do have a right to ask an applicant if they can perform the functions of the job for which they are applying.
If an employer asks you if you can perform a function that your disability does not permit you to perform, you can answer that you are unable to perform that function. The employer may then ask you “Why?” which naturally raises the issue of your disability.
Example: The employer asks you if you can lift a 50 pound box from the floor to the table repeatedly and you say, “No.” The employer asks, “Why?” and you reply, “Back surgery.” Suddenly, the issue of your disability has been raised within the context of a proper interview.
If you can perform a function but need an accommodation to do so, the need for the accommodation raises the issue.
Example: If an employer asks if you can proof documents and you reply, “Yes, but I will need a magnifier to see the small print,” the issue of your disability has been raised.
When the employer questions something in your background or employment history that is only explained by your disability, the disability issue is raised.
Example: An employer questions an applicant about why the worker left his or her last job and now wants to change fields. The applicant replies that he or she was injured on the job and can no longer do that kind of work. Thus the issue of the disability is raised.
When the disability is obvious to the employer and causes reasonable concern about the applicant’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job, the employer may question the applicant about his or her abilities. Note: The ADA allows the employer to do this as long as the inquiries are strictly job-related.
Example: An applicant comes in who has had an arm amputated. The employer does not see how the applicant can deliver heavy or awkward loads on the delivery route. So the employer asks the applicant to explain or demonstrate how he or she would do the function.
The problem is that many employers do not understand the ADA and are afraid to pursue even valid questioning without support and encouragement from the applicant with the disability. Some employers know the law but are afraid of offending or insulting a potential employee. This creates a problem for both the applicant and the employer. Applicants who help the employer solve this problem are more likely to be hired than those who do not.
QUESTION: How do I know whether to bring it up or not?
ANSWER: The ADA does not require, restrict or recommend to applicants with disabilities when, if or how to bring a disability up to a potential employer.
The following opinions are based on extensive experience in developing jobs for persons with disabilities.
If the disability will require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation, the applicant should bring it up, explaining the nature of the accommodation needed and how it will enable the person to perform the job effectively.
Example: An applicant who is blind requires a “talking” computer to do word processing. The applicant informs the employer of the need for this accommodation, the nature of the required equipment and details of his or her past performance using such equipment.
If the potential employee has a disability that will not require an accommodation but is visible, and the average employer would have reasonable concerns as to how someone with that disability would perform the job functions, the applicant should bring it up, explaining how the functions in question will be performed.
Example: An applicant has three fingers amputated from his or her dominant hand. The applicant needs to be able to type and take written messages. He or she has learned to both write and type without any accommodations, but since the employer will notice and probably be concerned, the applicant brings it up explaining or demonstrating how he or she can perform those functions.
If the disability is not obvious and will not impact the job’s performance, the applicant should not bring it up, as there is no need to discuss it.
Example: An applicant has been treated for depression. He or she is currently on medication that controls the depression, so there is no effect on job safety or performance. Again, there is no reason to bring it up.
QUESTION: How do I bring it up?
ANSWER: First, present your qualifications for the job. Focus on your ability to do the essential functions of the position. Next, bring up the functions for which you will need a reasonable accommodation. Do not focus only on the “need” for the accommodation but also stress the resulting productivity and effectiveness of the accommodation to allow you to perform the function.
Stress your ability, not your limitations. Would it be better for a person with a back injury to describe themselves as someone who cannot stand for more than an hour or someone who can stand for up to an hour? Both describe the same condition but the latter is much more positive because it describes what the person can do, not what the person can’t do.
Be ready for the subject to come up in the interviewer’s questions about qualifications and abilities. Be ready to respond with your explanation. If the subject does not come up, then bring it up near the end of the interview. Remember, remain positive.
QUESTION: What if I want my counselor or job developer to bring it up for me?
ANSWER: Then ask them to. But before you do, remember that it is generally more effective if you bring it up yourself. It sends the employer a message that if you are hired and problems arise, you will be an active and effective partner in solving them.
If you do not feel comfortable discussing the details of your need for reasonable accommodations, or do not wish to talk in detail about them, then you might bring up the subject and advise the employer that your counselor or placement professional is available to answer any questions, as well as to provide the employer with any needed assistance.
Whatever you decide should be done with the advisement and cooperation of your placement or job-placement agency.
QUESTION: What does my job counselor need to know?
ANSWER: Interesting enough, job counselors need to know what the employer needs to know: Your abilities and qualifications, your job-related limitations and potential needs for accommodation. Basically, they will be using the same standard for referring you to an interview that an employer uses in considering you for the job.
With your help they can be of great assistance to you by helping to identify the functions of the job you want, requesting any reasonable accommodations you might need, and “coaching” you to present yourself and your abilities in the best possible light.
As a person with a disability, the ADA represents a big change and a new world for you. It’s also a big change and a new world for employers and placement organizations. The best thing you can do for your placement counselor and yourself is to be honest about your vocational goals, be unafraid to dream big and pursue your dreams, while sharing them with others.
The ADA may unlock doors that had been locked in the past, but it is still your responsibility to knock on them, open them and walk on through. The most important factor in your job search is you. Good luck and good hunting!
by Richard Pimentel
This article was adapted from “Working with People with Disabilities in a Job Placement Job Retention Environment”.
Pimentel’s Publications include:
- Developing the New Employee: A Trainer’s Guide for Retaining and Enhancing a Diverse Workforce
- Return to Work for People with Stress and Mental Illness
- The Return to Work Process a Case Management Approach
- Windmills Trainers program, Hiring and Working With People with Disabilities
- What Managers and Supervisors need to Know about the ADA
- The Workers Compensation ADA Connection
Originally published in Dec/Jan 2007-08 Laura Innes Issue.
Archived PDF Ron Livingston Issue/Music Within Movie — based on Richard Pimentel