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Disclosing during a job interview

Meghan Fitz-James, M.A. Vocational Rehabilitation Counselling, CCC

Ms. Meghan Fitz-James is a vocational rehabilitation consultant who completed a Master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation Counselling at the University of British Columbia in 2009, including an 8-month practicum in vocational and clinical counselling at the BC Cancer Agency. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks into her new job. Ms. Fitz-James remained at work for 7 months during treatment until her fatigue was too great. She gained first-hand experience in disclosing disability stemming from cancer in order to secure workplace accommodations and is now 5 years post-diagnosis and working full time.

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Disclosing cancer-related disability and need for accommodation during a job interview

Every type of cancer has a different way of affecting the person who has it. When it comes to searching for employment, addressing a disability and the need for accommodation can be tricky. It requires you to have self-knowledge, an understanding about the accommodations that you require in reference to the work, and an understanding of the “why, how, when and what” to disclose.

Some of the disabilities that affect your functioning may be invisible to your potential employer. For example, fatigue, a sleep disorder, pain, changes in visual, auditory, taste, smell, sensations.

Some of the disabilities that affect your functioning may be visible to your employer. For example, amputation including mastectomy, function and mobility issues requiring the use of a cane or wheelchair, changes to appearance, hair loss, visible hot flash flashes/sweating from premature menopause.

You will need to ask yourself whether the symptoms of cancer and treatment are visible and may affect your ability to function. It is also important to consider whether a currently invisible issue may become visible if your condition worsens or changes.

You will then need to decide whether or not you have to disclose. If your functioning does not require workplace accommodations for you to perform necessary work tasks, and does not pose a risk to your safety or the safety of others, then you do not have to disclose. If you need an accommodation—keeping in mind that the choice to disclose to an employer before you are hired is up to you—there is a lot consider. Is not disclosing upfront going to cause hard feelings? Or, before you are hired, do you suspect you will be discriminated against if they are aware of a disability and need for accommodation? You will likely need to disclose once you have the job in order to obtain workplace accommodations and be able to safely perform necessary tasks. If you have a visible disability, you may need to decide whether you should address this somehow in the interview to confirm with the employer that you are able to do the job.

If you choose to disclose the disability and need for accommodation, there are several different time frames in which you could disclose, and these are the pros and cons of each:

In the cover letter/resume: Those with visible disabilities may feel they must disclose at this phase so as not to surprise the interviewer. However, the disadvantage to disclosing at this phase is that if the employer holds any negative perceptions about the disability, it may screen you from demonstrating your strengths at an interview. Disclosure on a cover letter should happen at the end of the letter. The focus should be on positive aspects of a disability, or, in other words, a focus on ability: “Due to my mobility limitations, I have developed exceptional planning and organizational skills.”

During an interview request: Disclosure of visible disability tends best to happen at this stage and can be done in two ways:

Direct method: “I have a visual impairment and require assistance locating your office. Would it be possible for somebody to meet me in the lobby?”
This provides the employer with three pieces of information:

  1. The person has a disability
  2. The nature of the disability
  3. Accommodations are required for the interview

Indirect method: “Wonderful, I’ll see you Thursday at 10:00 AM. You’ll recognize me. I’ll be the one with the cane.”
This provides the employer with information such as:

  1. The person has a disability
  2. The nature of the disability
  3. Accommodations are required for the interview

The direct or indirect method is a personal choice that each person with a disability must make.

During an interview: This is tricky. For those with a visible disability, not disclosing before arriving at the interview may engender distrust in the employer. For those with a hidden disability, it depends on the situation. If the job has a hard component, the employer should be informed of what accommodations would be needed for the job to get done. If there may be an advantage that arises from having a disability, this should also be brought up during the interview.

During the interview, those with a visible disability should not ignore it but speak about it directly. The employer must be helped to understand the implications of having the disability for the job duties.
Accommodations that are needed must be made clear, as without this knowledge the employer cannot fulfill their duty to make accommodations to the best of their ability or without “undue hardship.”
Attitudes you will need:

  1. Truthfulness
  2. Openness
  3. Optimism

After a job offer: This remains an option for those with a hidden disability. This timing allows the opening of a line of communication with the new employer: “I am eager to get started on the project; however, to make it easier for me to read I’ll need to install a magnification program on the computer I’m planning to use.”

This timing involves taking the lead in explaining the accommodations that need to be made and emphasizing how they have worked well in the past. Because this is after the job offer, the employer may feel tricked or misled, so one must be proactive in providing knowledge and reassurance with confidence and assertiveness.

Disclosure after difficulty: Problems that were not anticipated may arise, and this would “force” those who have not disclosed (when they should have) to think about accommodations that will need to be made and how to approach the employer. Optimistically, the employee and employer can work together to obtain the needed accommodations, and the employee will remain positive and proactive. On the other hand, there may be a lot of stress created and worry about how the employer will respond to the information.

Be prepared; draft a script with four elements to make it easier to disclose your needs to your employer/co-workers. The four elements are:

  1. Your strengths
  2. Limitations you face
  3. How you have overcome these limitations in the past and what accommodations you need to overcome them now
  4. Positivity and proactiveness

For more information, see the following articles from Transition: The Magazine of Disability Alliance BC:

Other information: