Sarah Smith (not her real name) had just been diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Both diseases can be debilitating and are known to worsen in times of extreme stress. Yet when Smith was applying for a teaching position, she didn't mention her illness during the interview.
"My husband and I really wanted to move from Fort Lauderdale to North Carolina to raise our son," says Smith. "I just didn't want to jeopardize my chances or give another applicant an edge over me."
People who live with chronic illness and medical disabilities have more challenges to overcome during the job search and interviewing process. Should they disclose such information? If so, how can they do this without taking the focus off their qualifications?
Should You Tell a Prospective Employer?
Smith did get the teaching position, and she later had to take time off when flare-ups occurred. Did she do the right thing by not disclosing her illnesses? She certainly didn't do anything illegal. The real risk for not disclosing an illness that may affect job performance is that some employers or colleagues may resent the lack of openness later. It's ultimately an ethical decision that experts say must be made individually.
"If [the medical disability] is not obvious, unless it is germane for the actual job, I don't think it's necessary to discuss it during an interview," says Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the US Department of Labor.
However, Grizzard does strongly urge job seekers to be upfront with employers about disabilities that could affect the job. "Legally, you don't have to, but most employers would appreciate the openness, and it would help create a positive working relationship," he says.
For example, if you're a diabetic who requires a snack regularly and will need to keep food at your desk, then you're better off saying this during the interview process, although you might wait until you are actually negotiating for the position.
But there are gray areas. For example, what about people with heart conditions who are applying for stressful positions? In these situations, Grizzard says to go with your gut and wait until the final interview to decide whether or not to disclose, because regardless of the rules, some companies do still discriminate.
It's a judgment call. Grizzard advises applicants whose illnesses are not obvious -- for example, those who are not in wheelchairs or who take medication that lessens symptoms -- to approach the first interview as a time to assess the company and interviewer's attitude.
How Do You Land the Interview in the First Place?
Grizzard advises people with medical conditions, whether obvious or not immediately noticeable (such as epilepsy or AIDS), to network. This means going to all the same job fairs, college placement offices, networking events, etc., that people without disabilities attend.
While this may be discouraging to some who feel discriminated against at these fairs and events, Grizzard advises people to view networking as an opportunity. The more active you are, the more confident you will become. Grizzard, who became blind in his late 20s, had to overcome his disability to earn a doctorate degree. He strongly encourages people to network in order to cross that mental divide.
"People with disabilities often have not had the opportunity to participate in a wide array of interests, like team sports, service clubs, sororities or fraternities, that last with us for years," says Grizzard. "These are great places to use as a fallback for networking."
In addition to joining professional and social organizations, volunteering is another way to meet more people.
To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act and job accommodations, try these resources: