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Rules for hiring workers with disabilities

By Susan Ricker

1:25 PM EDT, October 21, 2013

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As an employer or potential employee, you may have some questions about the hiring process for workers with disabilities. Sometimes it’s not clear what questions are all right to ask or what policies are important to understand.

Some common questions are answered here by Barbara Otto, CEO of Health & Disability Advocates, the Chicago-based policy and advocacy organization that operates Think Beyond the Label. Think Beyond the Label is a public-private partnership that delivers information, outreach and resources to businesses, job seekers and the public workforce system to ensure greater recruiting and hiring opportunities for job candidates with disabilities.

Q: Is it always necessary to disclose a disability in the workplace?
Otto: Employees and candidates are not required to disclose a disability, and employers are prohibited from asking the question. However, if they have a known disability, either because it is obvious — for example, they use a wheelchair — or because they have disclosed the fact that they have a hidden disability, employers can ask them to describe or demonstrate how they would perform a job-related function.

At Think Beyond the Label, we advise all our partners that the top priority in any interview is to ensure that the candidate has the skills and ability to do the job. Once skills and ability are established, the “how” of getting the job done comes next.

If an accommodation is needed to perform job-related functions, it is the candidate’s or employee’s responsibility to request that accommodation. The employer cannot ask. … More than half of workplace accommodations cost the employer nothing, while the rest typically cost up to only $500. The result is improved retention and productivity.

Q: How can you determine if you should disclose your disability to co-workers and the boss?
Otto: A good rule of thumb for disclosing a disability is determining whether your disability is relevant to how you will get the job done. Let’s take someone with a hearing impairment as an example. If you need most workplace communications to take place in writing in order to function as an effective member of your team, you should request just that. You may not even need to disclose that it is because of your hearing impairment, unless there is resistance to putting most communications in writing. But generally, communicating in writing often benefits everyone on the team.

Be aware of the company’s personnel policies, and make sure to include human resources if you’re unsure about how to talk with your boss or co-workers about what you need to perform your job. It’s the same principle for other hidden disabilities. If you have a mental health condition or other hidden disability, it is critical that you are clear with your team members or boss about the kind of communication and work parameters you need to perform your job.

Q: In a job search, should you disclose to a potential employer that you have a disability? If so, at what stage in the hiring process?
Otto: In a job search, candidates and potential employers should always focus on the skills and abilities needed to do the job. If you have an obvious disability, you can discuss how you will perform certain job functions, and your potential employer has the right to ask how you will perform functions related to the job. If you have a non-evident disability and know that you will need accommodations to perform the job, you can inquire about how the company makes on-the-job accommodations available for workers with disabilities.

Q: If you have an employee with a non-evident disability, what questions are appropriate to ask? What questions are inappropriate?
Otto: Focus on the job and tasks related to the job, not suppositions about the employee’s health or any disability. If you are aware that your employee may be struggling to perform on the job, meet with him or her to talk about performance. You cannot ask about disability; however, you can remind the employee that your company is committed to the success of every employee, and together you can talk about any barriers the employee may be facing to completing job-related tasks.

While it is up to the employee to request an accommodation for their disability, you can do your part by making sure all employees know that your company is a disability-friendly workplace. Be sure that your personnel policies include clear information about how to request an accommodation and that your supervisors and hiring managers are all well aware of the do’s and don’ts for working with colleagues or team members with disabilities.