How to get a job when you have a disability

Seeking jobs for people with disabilities? These tips can help you find a job that will show off the excellent worker you are.

How to get a job when you have a disability

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), wherein individuals with disabilities are celebrated for their contributions and achievements to the American workforce. Job seekers with disabilities face a unique set of challenges that can make the job search and interview process more difficult.

"Even if you’re highly qualified for a job, you might be self-conscious about your disability,” says Jonathan Kaufman, a career coach and psychotherapist who focuses on disability issues. “There’s a huge psychological component at play.”

If you worry whether prospective employers will question your ability to perform well on the job, know that you’re not alone. Rebecca Cokley, a senior fellow at American Progress who focuses on disability policy, says that’s a valid concern. “There is still a significant level of stigma surrounding people with disabilities in the workplace,” Cokley says.

These five tips can help make job searching with a disability less tedious and make sure you’re in the spotlight—not your disability.

Ask for what you need

Confidence is paramount to any job seeker. First off, know that there are federal laws that protect job seekers with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 makes it illegal for employers to ask job candidates about their medical history during a job interview. More important, it requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified job applicants or employees.

A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that will enable an employee with a disability to perform essential job functions. (Reasonable accommodation examples include modifying the height of desks and equipment, installing computer screen magnifiers, or installing telecommunications for the deaf.)

“You cannot get accommodations without disclosing your disability” before accepting a job offer, says Cokley. “You should feel no shame about requesting an accommodation you need in order to be successful at your job.”

Understand disability disclosure

Share what you need to, when you need to. For example, according to Monster career expert Vicki Salemi, you don’t have to disclose your disability on your resume or cover letter.

Obviously, if you’re asked to attend a meeting at a building with no access ramp and you’re physically incapable of walking up stairs, you’ll have to tell that to the interviewer ahead of time—and when you do, point out that you're really looking forward to explaining how your skills and expertise would be a tremendous asset to the company. 

If you have a disability that doesn’t require any accommodations or affect your ability to perform the functions of the job, you are under no legal obligation to disclose your disability to a prospective employer.

Focus on your strengths and abilities

For job seekers who require accommodations, framing your request in a positive light is key. “You want to explain hiring you is a win-win for you and the company,” Kaufman says. For example: “As long as I can adjust my computer monitor’s resolution so that I can see everything clearly, I’ll be plowing through those spreadsheets with ease.”

Dan Ryan, author of the Job Search Handbook for People with Disabilities, says it’s important to be as specific as possible and knowing what technologies would help you excel on the job can make you more attractive to prospective employers. (For instance, speech recognition software such as StickyKeys can make using a computer easier for someone with dexterity problems.)

“Show you’ve done your research and know exactly what you need to perform all the essential functions of the job,” he says.

Leverage your job experience

One way to play up your strengths to a hiring manager is by talking about how you’ve excelled at previous jobs.

“Showing you’ve already done the functions of the job you’re applying for is extremely beneficial,” Ryan says. “It provides verifiable evidence that you can do the work and do it well.”

For extra wow-factor, use numbers to help quantify your achievements. Don’t just say you oversaw a budget and reduced spending. Instead say, “Oversaw an annual budget of $50,000 and cut costs by 15%.”

But don’t just sing your own praises. Create a solid reference list of former bosses and co-workers who can endorse your skills and qualifications.

Take advantage of job-hunting resources for people with disabilities

There are a number of disability advocacy and support groups that offer free job training and job-placement assistance.

Ryan recommends the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service provided by the United States Department of Labor that offers advice on workplace accommodations for a wide range of disabilities.

There’s also the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP), a recruitment and referral program that connects federal sector employers nationwide to job seekers with disabilities.

Attending networking events for workers with disabilities can play an important part in helping you find companies that have excellent facilities and support systems already in place. Don't hesitate to put yourself out there. After all, right now employers are hoping to find someone with your exact set of skills.