When you're job searching, it can feel hard to assert your needs.
You smile and choke down that cup of coffee when the interviewer offers it to you, even though you not-so-secretly despise the taste. You agree to an 8 AM interview time without a fight, despite the fact that the early commute means you’ll need to leave your house at a ridiculous hour.
However, when you’re a job seeker with any sort of disability, you often don’t have the option of letting your needs slip by unannounced.
Maybe you need to use a video call or other hearing disability accommodations rather than a standard phone screening. Or perhaps you’re in a wheelchair and need to confirm that the interview location is accessible.
These needs are completely justifiable, and unlike the taste of that bitter cup of coffee, not having them met is far more than a minor inconvenience. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s challenging (not to mention nerve-racking) to disclose any type of disability and request accommodations during your job search.
When’s the right time? What should you say? What are you legally entitled to? Will your disability take you out of the running?
Here’s the lowdown on everything you need to know about making these requests.
How Does the Americans With Disabilities Act Cover Job Seekers?
Signed into law in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. That includes transportation, schools, all public or private places that are open to the general public, and—you guessed it—jobs.
This protection doesn’t just kick into action once you’ve landed a position. “The ADA applies from the moment you go to look for a job,” explains Tracie DeFreitas, Lead Consultant and ADA Specialist with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which is funded by a contract with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Provided that the person has a qualified disability, “an individual has a right to request accommodation as soon as they’re looking for a job.”
What Counts as a “Qualified Disability”?
When you’re trying to figure out what’s covered under the Americans With Disability Act, you’re bound to wonder what exactly a “qualified disability” is.
The ADA defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” That includes people who have a history or record of an impairment—even if they don't currently have a disability—and people who are perceived by others as having an impairment. Pretty broad, right?
What Does the ADA Cover in the Workplace?
Title I of the ADA (which is the section of the law that deals specifically with equal employment opportunities) applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and it exists to help people with qualified disabilities benefit from the full range of employment-related opportunities that are available to others.
For starters, it prohibits discrimination in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, and more. It restricts questions that can be asked about an applicant’s disability during the pre-employment process (meaning, before you’ve actually been offered the job). And it requires that employers make reasonable disability accommodations—unless doing so causes undue hardship.
The “reasonable” and “undue hardship” parts are where things get a little murky. A disabled person has the right to request accommodations, but ultimately it’s up to the employer to decide if the request is actually feasible for them.
What Can Employers Ask About Disabilities?
The employer is also legally prohibited from asking questions that could reveal a disability before making a job offer. It’s only after a candidate makes a request that they’re able to engage in a conversation about the disability and any necessary accommodations. “During that time an employer can request a note from a healthcare provider to confirm that person has the impairment they say they have,” explains DeFreitas.
At that point, the employer might also evaluate if there are other effective and reasonable accommodations available. “There should be a process there. It’s a process of saying, ‘Okay, we understand you might have some limitations, what can we do to enable you to go through this process?’” DeFreitas continues.
The employer also doesn’t have to provide the exact accommodation that’s preferred or being requested, says DeFreitas: “There might be an alternative accommodation available. There should be a process of engagement there to figure out what’s reasonable and effective.”
How to Ask for Disability Accommodations During Your Job Search
Knowing what you’re legally entitled to is certainly helpful, but actually speaking up and requesting accommodations is still anxiety-inducing at best. Here are five tips to calm your nerves, ask for what you need, and impress that prospective employer.
1. Consider Your Timing
Timing is one of the trickiest considerations when disclosing your disability during the job search, and ultimately there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s a highly personal decision.
For example, Kris Merrill, an Engineering Manager, Developer Productivity at Slack, will let recruiters know before the initial phone screening that he is deaf. “I would request video conferencing and reveal that I read lips for communication,” he says. “At this point in my life, I do not feel nervous about asking for an accommodation that I have a right to have. Every prospective employer has accommodated me.”
Alaina Leary, an editor and social media manager, is similarly open about her disability, but she waits a little longer to disclose it. “I usually only bring it up when we're scheduling an interview or a little bit later in the interview process when I feel I'm a potential top candidate. There's not usually a reason to include it on the initial application,” says Leary, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes her to struggle with widespread chronic pain, fatigue and exhaustion, brain fog, and difficulty with mobility, walking, and standing. She often walks with a cane.
“Any employer could easily find out I'm disabled simply by visiting my portfolio or Googling my name, so I'm not actively trying to hide anything in the job search process,” she adds.
Leary adds that she hasn’t always been this open about her disability—particularly in a professional setting. “I rarely talked about it in office jobs that I held before I started working remotely,” she says. “Office culture makes it very uncomfortable to talk about disability unless you know where everyone stands.”
Again, this is obviously a personal decision, and the fear that bringing up a disability could sabotage their chances inspires many job seekers to bite their tongue until later on. However, there is something to be said for disclosing earlier in the hiring process.
“Don't forget that you're evaluating the company just as much as they're evaluating you, so you want to find companies that welcome whatever you bring to the table,” says Julie Li, Senior Director of Employee Experience and Diversity and Inclusion at Namely. “I recommend being up front rather than waiting until the last minute. If an employer makes you feel uncomfortable, you probably don't want to spend 40+ hours a week in that environment.”
DeFreitas adds, “You don’t ever want to be in a position to have not disclosed and not requested accommodation and now you’re not getting the best opportunity to bring your whole self to the workplace.”
2. Ask Questions About the Hiring Process
A lot of the hiring process can feel like shooting in the dark. You aren’t always well-informed about what will be expected, so it’s tough to know when or even if you’ll actually need accommodations. This is why you can’t be afraid to ask questions and get the information you need.
“Find out as much as you can about what’s expected during the hiring process, so you know what you can ask for,” says DeFreitas. Will there be an initial phone screening? Will there be a testing portion? How many people will you be meeting with during your interview?
Merrill says he isn’t shy about asking for details in order to determine what he might need to be successful. “For example, if I were to undergo a group interview, I would request a captioner. It's too hard for me to focus on multiple speakers and it puts me at a disadvantage,” he explains.
Ultimately, it should be the responsibility of the employer to have an informed hiring process and empower all candidates with the details of what’s involved. But if they’re falling short in that area, don’t hesitate to prompt them for more information.
Beyond the hiring process itself, Leary also makes sure to ask questions about what’s expected on the job—even venturing into areas that might otherwise be considered “taboo” during the interview phase.
“I ask about the hours, paid time off, sick time (and whether it’s separate from vacation), personal days, and whether I’d have to work specific set hours or be free to make a flexible schedule,” she says.
3. Know How Much You’re Comfortable Sharing
Exactly how much information you share is another aspect of disability disclosure that’s personal. If you’re wary of this conversation, don’t feel pressured to dive into all of the nitty gritty details of your disability and exactly why you need certain accommodations—that’s not necessary.
Leary says she’s typically as vague as possible. “If I had to explain my disability for any reason I’d intentionally not tell them all the details. The exception would be in workplaces or with employers who have proven themselves to be very keen on disability rights,” she says.
“You don't need to disclose everything about yourself, and I would advise you to only share what’s relevant for success on the job,” adds Li. For example, you might eventually need to disclose that you’re a wheelchair user, but that doesn’t mean you need to share why you require the wheelchair.
What you’re comfortable with might also change as you move through your career.
“When I was younger, I was ‘under the radar,’” says Merrill. “I never disclosed my hearing impairment and folks probably imagined that I just had a slight speech impediment. Now that I have a hearing dog (service animal) which I bring to work every day, it's a little hard not to disclose my disability. I'm out and proud and I want to be a successful role model for others.”
4. Be Specific About What Your Needs Are
Disclosing your disability is the first step, but the process doesn’t end there. You need to also be specific about what your needs are in terms of accommodations.
DeFreitas says that sometimes people assume that an employer will hear the person’s disability and automatically know what they require to be successful—but that’s often not the case. It’s up to you to be explicit about what you require to be your best self throughout that hiring process, as well as if you end up being hired.
“When I first started working remotely, I thought that working from home one or two days a week would be enough,” shares Leary. “Now I realize that I actually work more effectively and do a better job if I'm primarily working from home. I communicate that with potential employers.”
5. Frame Your Request Positively
“Sometimes it feels like there’s not an easy way to request accommodation because you’re sort of putting yourself out there and being vulnerable,” says DeFreitas. “People get worried, ‘I’m going to ask for something and they’re not going to want me because I asked for something right away!’”
However, if you approach it from a more positive standpoint and prove that you’re solutions-focused, you can combat your fear of being viewed as a demanding candidate.
How exactly do you do that? Say something like, “I’m very interested in this opportunity, and I want to make sure I can do my best during this hiring process. In order to do so, I require X, Y, and Z.”
Framing it that way keeps things positive and demonstrates your engagement, while still clearly stating what you need in unmistakable terms.
Your Request Was Denied: What Happens Now?
In an ideal world, your request for accommodations would be met with a resounding, “Of course!” and you’d move forward with acing the interview process and landing the job.
Unfortunately, things don’t always pan out that way. Discrimination still exists, and there are companies that will rule out a candidate for having a disability (even if they don’t directly cite that as the reason for rejection).
What can you do now (besides being justifiably angry)? Well, how you choose to react is another one of those decisions that’s highly personal.
If you’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt, it could be that the employer doesn’t actually understand accommodations or the regulations of the ADA. In those cases, DeFreitas recommends that the candidate try to work with the employer to educate them about accommodations and how they could be a benefit.
For example, if an employer thought that bringing in a captioner for a group interview was an unnecessary expense, you could explain that your hearing disability makes it tough for you to communicate successfully in larger groups and that, if the captioner was out of the question, then you’d need to meet with the interviewers one at a time in order to dedicate your full attention to the conversation.
If it’s a situation where the employer is unwilling to provide accommodations and seems to be discriminating, an individual does have the right under the ADA to file a formal complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or their state’s human rights commission. However, DeFreitas warns that proving discrimination can be incredibly difficult.
“Make sure that all of the communication is done in writing. If an individual does need an accommodation, put it in an email,” she says. “Make it so that there is some documentation to establish the need for accommodation.” That will serve as your evidence if you do choose to file a formal complaint against the employer.
Merrill believes he’s never knowingly been discriminated against, but that he can understand why job candidates might avoid taking legal action. “I imagine disabled job seekers would be hesitant to file a formal complaint in response to a discriminatory event because they may feel that it would hinder their prospects with other employers,” he says.
Leary says she felt that her access needs were actually ignored by one employer, and that she was discriminated against by another. Despite those instances, she has never filed a formal complaint.
“I think in a lot of ways the cards are stacked against disabled job seekers, particularly anyone who is oppressed in multiple ways or who is also young [and] less experienced,” she shares. “It’s hard to feel like you have any power at all in these situations, or are able to take risks even when you’ve been wronged.”
Making requests during the job search can feel counterintuitive at best.
But when you’re someone with a disability who requires accommodations to be your most impressive self throughout the hiring process, you really don’t have a choice but to do so. Fortunately, it’s possible to approach this conversation in a way that’s professional, productive, and hopefully a win-win for both you and the employer.
“Be proactive in asking for what you need to be successful,” advises Merrill. “By being up front about your disability and accommodation requests, you're opening the door to establish a mutually beneficial partnership with a future employer.”
Photo of colleagues—including one in a wheelchair—talking in an office courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author