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Discussing the Disability with Prospective Employers

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

These are often the reasons:

  • Your employer asks if you can perform the essential functions of the job.
  • Your 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 that is only explained by disability.
  • The disability is obvious to the employer.

Note: The main benefit of discussing your 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 accommodation needs, which they are obligated, by law, to provide.

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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 that you tell the employer your diagnosis, prognosis or how you acquired the disability in an interview. It may be appropriate for you to tell the employer specific limitations that 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 that is known to him or her.

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What if my 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. 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 functions of the job.

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What if my disability is not obvious?

If the disability may not impact your job, then there is no reason to bring it up during 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 should inform the employer that you need an accommodation. If you can do the function with an accommodation, you should bring it up and explain the nature of the accommodation needed and how it will enable you to perform the job.

Do not put more emphasis on the disability than necessary, 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. If the job does not require lifting, there is no need to discuss your lifting restriction. 

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 an adjustment or modification to how a job is typically performed or an adjustment or modification to the work environment. The accommodation takes into consideration your disability-related limitations.

For example, an employee has a 25 pound lifting restriction, and a job function is to move a box of files weighing 50 pounds to another desk at the end of the day. He could ask a co-worker to assist him with this task. Or he may 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 that 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 that 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 away from work for so long?

You have choices about how 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 may also add you are now in excellent health (if applicable) or that you are ready to return to work full time. This communicates the idea you are doing well and look forward to getting back into the workforce. This statement flags your situation. Depending on the circumstances, it may be better to do this than to hide your absence from work.
  2. Disclose your disability if you need accommodations, such as access to the building, 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 you are interested in. Ask for a job description before your interview. It is better to deal with these issues ahead of time. Make a list of questions you know you will have trouble with, formulate answers, and then practice your delivery of these answers so you will be ready for them.
  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 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 workers’ compensation claim. Employers cannot obtain your workers’ 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 prefer the work schedule 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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What are some positive reasons for leaving employment?

  • Career change or better job
  • 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
  • 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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How should I address gaps in my employment?

It is important to account for the past ten years, if possible, when completing a job application. Here are some ideas to help you discuss 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 2009–Spring 2010 or 2010–2011

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How should I disclose my disability?

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 prove 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 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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What are 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 that may affect your performance in the position for which you are applying?
  • Are you taking any prescription drugs?
  • Have you ever been treated for drug addiction or alcoholism?
  • Have you ever filed for workers’ compensation insurance?

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Content Last Updated: 12/06/2011

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