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Discussing the Disability with Prospective Employers

When does the issue of my disability come up in an interview?

Often, these are the reasons:
  • Your employer asks if you can perform the essential functions of the job.
  • You employer asks you to perform a function of the job that your disability does not allow you to perform.
  • You need an accommodation to perform a function of the job.
  • There is something in your background or history which is only explained by disability.
  • The disability is obvious to the employer.

Note: The main benefit of bringing up the issue of disability in an interview is that, if you are qualified for the job, you may need a "reasonable accommodation" to do the "essential functions" of the job. If this is the case, bringing up the topic informs the employer of your needed accommodations, which they are obligated, by law, to perform.

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What can an employer ask about my medical status?

An employer cannot ask questions about your general medical status, but the employer can ask if you can perform the functions of the job you are applying for. It is never required in an interview that you tell the employer your diagnosis, your prognosis, or how you acquired the disability. It may be appropriate for you to tell the employer specific limitations which might affect how you do the job. The employer cannot ask you to participate in a medical examination unless all applicants for the job are required to do this and the job is offered on a conditional basis.

It is your decision to disclose information regarding a disability to your employer or not, but the employer is only obligated to accommodate any limitation which is known to him or her.

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What if the disability is obvious?

If your disability is obvious to someone you meet, it is often a good idea to talk about the disability in an interview. Of course, this is your choice, however if you feel most employers would have reasonable concerns or doubts as to how someone with your disability would perform the job, you can explain how you will perform the job functions.

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What if my disability is not obvious?

In this case, if the disability may not impact your job, then THERE IS NO REASON TO BRING IT UP in an interview. The law does not require you to do so, and the law does not allow the employer to ask if you have a disability. If you cannot perform the job without an accommodation, then you should tell the employer about the needed accommodation.

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What if I need an accommodation to do the job?

If you cannot perform an essential function of the job without accommodation, then you need to tell the employer you need an accommodation to do it. In this case, if you can do the function with an accommodation, you should bring it up, explaining the nature of the accommodation needed and how it will enable you to perform the job.

Do not make a bigger deal out of the disability than it really is, and keep the importance of the disability within the context of the interview and job. Emphasize what you CAN do, why you are qualified, and other reasons why the employer should hire you. For example, if a man is restricted to lifting no more than 25 pounds, he could tell the employer that he CAN lift up to 25 pounds.

First, present your qualifications for the job, then focus on your ability to perform the functions of the job. Next, bring up the functions of the job you will need an accommodation to perform. Stress the resulting productivity and effectiveness of having the accommodation in the job.

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What is a reasonable accommodation?

An accommodation is a change to how the job is typically performed, that takes into consideration your disability-related limitations. The question of whether or not the employer thinks the accommodation you suggest is reasonable, is not easily determined by law. You should talk to your vocational consultant or someone knowledgeable about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) about this topic if you should have specific questions. Know the employer may be obligated to provide an accommodation if it is reasonable; however, not all employers are subject to the ADA. The accommodation cannot cause undue hardship, financial or otherwise, to the employer. The employer is not required to accommodate sub-standard or inadequate performance from an employee with a disability.

If an employee has a 25 pound lifting restriction and a job function is to move a box of files that weighs 50 pounds to another desk at the end of the day, he could ask that another co-worker assist him with this tasks, or that he take the files out of the box, then take two trips to move the files and the box to the desk. In some jobs, this would be considered reasonable.

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What if there is not an accommodation which will allow me to perform the functions of the job?

If an accommodation will not allow you to perform the essential functions of the job, then you are not qualified for the position. Please work with your vocational consultant to carefully and thoroughly investigate options for accommodations, which could be useful, before determining that an accommodation does not exist.

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How do I answer the question about why I have been off work for so long?

You have choices about how you choose to handle this question. Here are some options:

  1. Tell the truth. Simply describe the time gap from the period when you stopped working until now as "Recovery from illness/injury." You can also say, "Now in excellent health," if it applies, and "I am ready to return to work full time". This communicates the idea you are doing well and you are looking forward to getting back into the work force. This statement flags your situation, but depending on the circumstances it is better to do this than to hide your absence from work.
  2. Disclosure of your disability is critical at this point if accommodations, such as access to the building, are necessary to do the job. Do your homework! If you are unsure whether or not you can perform the physical demands of the job, call and ask questions about the job for which you are interested. Ask for a job description before your interview. It is better to deal with these issues ahead of time rather than 15 minutes before your interview or during your interview. Make a list of the questions you know you are going to have trouble with and formulate an answer, and then practice your delivery of these answers so you will be ready from them. Be prepared!!
  3. Provide an alternate explanation rather than disability, if such an explanation exists, such as:
    • Returned to or began school
    • Worked part-time
    • Self employed
    • Raised children
    • Traveled
    • Received career counseling

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How do I answer the question about why I left my last job?

Again, you have choices about how you choose to handle this question. Here are some options:

  1. If you were injured on the job, it is sometimes advisable not to disclose to the employer that you had a Worker's Compensation claim. Employers can not obtain your Worker's Compensation records. It is never advisable, however, to lie to an employer.
  2. If you became unable to perform your job due to your disability, it might reassure the employer to discuss why you left the job. Keep it simple and don't elaborate on the injury. Make sure you fully understand the functions of the job you are applying for and feel comfortable you can perform them, with or without an accommodation. Then tell this to the employer.
  3. Have you always wanted to make a career change but never had the opportunity until now? Then tell this to the potential employer. Let them know, for example, that you did not like the long hours required by your previous job, you wanted another career challenge, or that you were ready to make a change. If this is the case and there is no reason to disclose your disability, then this might be an option for you.

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If you do decide to disclose your disability or if it's necessary for you to disclose your disability (i.e. if you require accommodations to do the job):

Be sure to do it in a way that shows how you have dealt with a difficult situation in a positive manner. Remember to keep the past in the past, stating you are ready to move forward and are qualified and able to do the job you want.

Remember to talk about your abilities, not your disabilities. Employers need qualified, capable individuals to fill positions. Find a way to show that you are that person. Sell them on what you can do, not on what you cannot do and the interview will go better than you expect. Be positive about yourself and be honest.

Think about valuable life experiences you have gained during this time. Have you been taking care of children or a parent, going to school, taking art classes, or volunteering? Most likely, you will have gained knowledge or perspectives that can be applied to your future employment. Speak of your time off work in a positive way and talk about what you've learned. Talk about why you are ready to go back to work.

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Questions Employers may not ask

The following list includes samples of illegal questions that may not be asked on application forms or in job interviews:

  • Have you ever had or been treated for any of the following conditions or diseases (followed by checklist of various conditions/diseases)
  • Please list any conditions or diseases for which you have been treated in the past 3 years
  • Have you ever been hospitalized? If so, for what condition?
  • Have you ever been treated by a psychiatrist or psychologist? If so, for what condition?
  • Have you ever been treated for any mental condition?
  • Is there any health-related reason you may not be able to perform the job for which you are applying?
  • Have you had a major illness in the last 5 years?
  • How many days were you absent from work because of illness last year?
  • Do you have any physical defects, which preclude you from performing certain kinds of work? If yes, describe such defects and specific work limitations?
  • Do you have any disabilities or impairments, which may affect your performance in the position for which you are applying?
  • Are you taking any prescribed drugs?
  • Have you ever been treated for drug addiction or alcoholism?
  • Have you ever filed for Worker's Compensation insurance?

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Positive Reasons for Leaving Employment

  • Career Change
  • Desired a more challenging position
  • Wanted a position that was career oriented
  • General layoff or reduction in staff due to economy
  • Work was seasonal/part-time/temporary
  • Became a full time student
  • Began self-employment
  • Option for a better job
  • Wanted to be more productive
  • Wanted a job requiring my best skills
  • Wanted a job in which I could learn
  • Desire a career-oriented position in (field in which you are applying)
  • Accepted a new job
  • Moved or relocated
  • Will discuss in interview

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Addressing Gaps in Employment

It is important to account for the past ten years, if possible, when completing a job application. Following are some ideas to help you in discussing gaps on an application or in person:

  • Returned to or began school
  • Worked part time
  • Self-employed
  • Raised children
  • Traveled
  • Received career counseling
  • Use flexible dates: fall 1993-Spring 1994 or 1993-1994

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IN 17531
03/2006

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