Work Advice: The delicacy of disclosing a disability
Monday , June 16, 2014 - 12:20 PM
Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.
Q: At what point in the job application process should I reveal that I am visually impaired? Last time I was considered for a job, I did not mention my disability in several pre-interview phone conversations with my prospective boss. He was impressed with my skills and experience, and strongly indicated that I would fit in well. At my official interview, he was surprised to discover that I use a mobility cane, and later made what seemed an excuse not to hire me (I “didn’t seem excited enough about the position").
I don’t want to give the impression that I believe my low vision should factor into the hiring decision or that it affects the quality of my performance; I have needed only minimal accommodations at work since I began losing my eyesight more than two decades ago. It’s a nuisance to me personally, but it has never been an impediment to doing my job well. I fear that notifying employers too early and thus making an issue of my liability might make them think that hiring me would be a risk. But I don’t also want to make interviewers uncomfortable.
A: As I mentioned in a recent column, you are not required to disclose a disability unless you’re requesting an accommodation. It doesn’t define you, and it should be irrelevant to the hiring decision.
However, yours is a chronic, visible condition that will require at least some long-term accommodation if you are hired. True, the interviewer might have been put off by your impairment — or he may have inferred, correctly or not, that you deliberately withheld the information because you didn’t trust him to give you a fair shake if he knew about it in advance.
So I believe this is one of the rare times it would do more good than harm to reveal a personal medical condition before showing up at the interview. If you know there will be a written test, for example, ask if you can have it read to you and respond orally. Or mention that you were the first legally blind professional to [insert impressive accomplishment here] at your current employer. Add that you’ll be happy to answer any questions about your disability as it relates to the position when you meet in person.
You can find more firsthand advice and resources from the Job Accommodation Network (www.askjan.org), a service of the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. Also, check out the biography of ODEP chief Kathy Martinez and her smart, inspiring September 2012 advice to disabled job seekers. (Viewable at http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/atwork-advice-a-worker-on-disability-considers-returning-to-cubicle-land/2012/08/30/479694e0-e7cd-11e1-936a-b801f1abab19_story.html.)
Realistically, if you’re dealing with someone who is uncomfortable hiring someone with a disability, it probably doesn’t matter how soon you disclose. But I can’t help believing that if you’re confident about your strengths and matter-of-fact about your needs, the right interviewers will focus on your qualifications, not your cane.
Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG’s Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.