Q. I’m looking for a job that pays well enough to offset my quadriplegia-associated expenses. Since I’ve heard it is difficult for wheelchair users to get interviews, I don’t tell potential employers about my disability ahead of time. This solution is less than ideal when put into practice.
I kept my wheelchair a secret prior to an interview twice now, and neither time worked out well, as both interviews were in inaccessible locations. There were also some personal questions asked during the interviews that seemed more about my disability than about my qualifications. One potential employer asked how I would get to work on time each day, and another wanted to know how often I needed to visit the bathroom.
Does it make sense to hide my wheelchair from potential employers prior to an interview, and are there any restrictions on what they can ask about my disability during an interview? Perhaps more importantly, what are my protections and recourse if I believe I have been discriminated against?
— Still Seeking
A. While it’s up to you to decide whether to tell prospective employers if you use a wheelchair, there are a lot of good reasons to do so.
If you require an accommodation in order to be interviewed, it is your responsibility to disclose what you need. Not doing so can be embarrassing for both sides, with the possibility that the sudden introduction of your disability may deflect attention away from your qualifications.
Asking for an accommodation also gives you a chance to show how you can proactively deal with potential obstacles, both disability-related and not. Additionally, the interaction can give you a feel for how the employer will handle disability issues and possible future accommodations or requests. If your request is met with inappropriate questions like the ones you faced, it may be a sign of problems to come.
While your wheelchair may be part of your daily existence, remember it is not you. Presenting your disability as an asset and focusing on ways it has made you a better candidate can be an excellent strategy. If you show that you are comfortable with your disability, that relaxed attitude should cause the interviewers to be more comfortable with you as well. Your job is to make your prospective employer understand not only that you have the qualifications for the job, but also that you are the one they should hire.
During the interview, employers cannot ask questions about your disability, but they can ask how you would accomplish the essential functions of the job for which you are applying. If you have previous experience in doing that work, including on a volunteer basis, this is an opportunity to bring it up.
If you feel like you have been discriminated against, Title I of the ADA protects you from employment-related discrimination. Qualified individuals with disabilities who are discriminated against at any stage of the employment process may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the designated enforcement agency. Many states have related civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities; pursuing violations of those laws occurs at the state level. Hopefully your search for the dream job will go well, and you will not need to make use of any of these programs.
Editor’s Note: This will be the last Everyday Advocacy column. Since its debut in 2011, Michael Collins’ sage advice has helped educate countless readers about the intricacies of disability rights in everyday situations. Visit our archive of Everyday Advocacy columns.