Many people have disabilities that are obvious to others, meaning that employers and potential employers will notice at some point. In other cases, disabilities can be invisible or non-obvious, but they can still affect the way you do your job.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination by covered employers against people with disabilities. It also requires those employers to provide reasonable accommodations for people who need them to do the job.
Reasonable accommodations can include anything necessary to assist the person to perform the job, unless providing the accommodation would cause undue hardship for the company. Undue hardship means significant difficulty or expense, not mere inconvenience.
The person with the disability still has to be able to perform the core aspects of the job. You generally have to meet the same productivity and other goals as other workers. A disability accommodation allows you to do the job in a different way, using different equipment, or at a different location, for example. That said, if more than one accommodation would suffice, the employer can choose which one to provide.
In order to obtain an accommodation, however, people need to make at least some disclosure about the disability — and that can be intimidating. Many of us can think of a situation where an employer denied a perfectly reasonable request for accommodation. Worse, many of us can think of an example of overt or covert discrimination against someone with a disability.
Retaliation is illegal under the ADA. Legally, your employer cannot use your request for an accommodation as an excuse to reassign, demote or get rid of you. But it does happen.
If you need to request an accommodation from an employer, you’ll need to be strategic and protect yourself. People may have positive, reasonable responses to a disability disclosure — or they may not.
Prepare what you will say and when
Depending on your disability, you may have the option of when to disclose your need for an accommodation. You might not need to mention it on an initial phone screening, for example, but it might be obvious during an in-person interview.
You might not want to mention it too soon because you could jeopardize the interview process. The employer might be more willing to accommodate someone they’ve decided to hire than they would be to picture accommodating someone they don’t yet know. At the same time, the person interviewing you may feel that you weren’t honest if you don’t reveal soon enough.
Once you’ve decided when best to disclose your needs, prepare answers to questions you expect to receive. Decide what you would like to say about your disability, but try to be as open and engaging as possible. Most people want to be helpful, and giving them a chance to do so may bring the accommodation you need and support you didn’t expect.
Your current or potential employer may not want to accommodate you, but they shouldn’t simply refuse. If at first they do, engage them in a discussion about the barrier you are facing and the accommodation you believe would help you overcome it.
If your employer seems reluctant to accommodate you, take notes on your discussions and what was said to make you think so. This could become important if you have to make a complaint later.
Life with a disability can be messy, and the real world may be harsh. At the same time, people are often more caring and supportive than we expect. If you run into trouble, contact a lawyer about your concerns.