Getting Hired With a Disability

The ADA doesn’t require employers to hire applicants with disabilities, but it does provide protections.

By , J.D.
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If you have a disability and are searching for a job, you should know how the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you in the hiring process. The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees and job applicants with disabilities. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to those with disabilities.

Below, we explain who the ADA protects, how the law works, and some common issues that might come up for job applicants with disabilities.

Does the ADA Protect Everyone With a Disability or Medical Condition?

The ADA protects you only if you are applying for a job with a covered employer and you have a disability as defined by the law. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees. (Your state may have a law that applies to smaller employers, too.)

You are protected from disability discrimination only if you have a disability as defined by the ADA. You have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits your major life activities, such as walking, breathing, seeing, lifting, sleeping, or caring for yourself. Particular diseases or conditions do not "automatically" qualify as disabilities under the ADA; instead, the law looks at how an individual person is actually affected by an impairment. (Learn more on how the ADA defines disabilities.)

When Is a Disabled Applicant Qualified for the Job?

The ADA doesn't require employers to hire applicants with disabilities. Instead, it prohibits discrimination against qualified applicants with disabilities. As long as you are qualified for the job, an employer can't decide not to hire you simply because you have a disability.

You are a qualified job applicant if:

  • You meet the job requirements, such as education, licensing, experience, skills (fluency in a foreign language, for example), and so on. An employer is under no obligation to consider your application if you don't meet its hiring criteria.
  • You can perform the job's essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. You must be able to do the basic job duties of the position for which you are applying. If you need a reasonable accommodation to do the job, the ADA still protects you from discrimination. For example, if you have a back injury, you may need to use a sit/stand desk in order to do an office job.
    You are protected from discrimination even if there are nonessential or tangential duties that you can't perform. For example, if the office receptionist is responsible for replacing heavy water bottles once or twice a month, an applicant with a lifting restriction might not be able to perform that function. That shouldn't disqualify the applicant from protection under the ADA.

Should You Mention Your Disability When Interviewing for a Job?

If you make it to the job interview stage, you'll have to decide whether to disclose your disability. If you have an apparent disability, because you use a wheelchair or a guide dog, for example, you don't have much of a choice. In other situations, however, you will have to make a decision. You are not required to reveal that you have a disability if you don't want to, but there may be good reasons to disclose.

Employers are not allowed to ask you whether you have a disability or how your disability affects you. However, employers can ask whether you can perform the job's essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Employers can also ask you how (or ask you to demonstrate how) you would perform those functions. Revealing or discussing your disability might allow you to more easily show an employer that you can do the job.

If you need a reasonable accommodation for the interview process, you will have to speak up. For example, if you have an obvious visual impairment, and the interviewer asks you to demonstrate how you would perform data entry, you should be ready to explain how you can use voice-activated software to perform that function.

There are potential downsides to revealing a disability during the interview. Although employers are legally prohibited from denying you a job because of your disability, not all employers follow the law. Even an employer who doesn't consciously intend to discriminate might have unconscious biases and stereotypes about people with disabilities that enter into the decision process.

What Kind of Testing Can an Employer Require?

There are two types of tests an employer might ask you to take before hiring you: a skills test (or other job-related test) or a medical examination. The ADA applies to both.

Skills and Job Tests

During the hiring process, an employer may ask you to take a skills test. For example, you might have to take a typing or keyboarding test for a secretarial job. The ADA gives you the right to a reasonable accommodation in the testing process, if you need one.

Medical Tests

The ADA allows an employer to require you to take a medical exam, but only if you've received a conditional employment offer, meaning you're hired as long as the doctor clears you to do the job. Also, the employer can't require you to take the exam unless it requires everyone in the position or applying for the position to do so.

What if a Prospective Employer Doesn't Hire You?

If you believe you were not chosen for a position because of your disability, consider talking to an employment lawyer. Discrimination lawsuits based on the hiring process are very difficult to win. There are many perfectly legal reasons why an employer might decide to hire someone else, and it can be hard to find out what the decision was really based on. A lawyer can go through the facts with you and help you decide whether it's worth considering legal action or whether you might be better served by simply moving on with your job search.

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