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Disability is a tricky subject for job seekers, employers

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    Disability is a tricky subject for job seekers, employers

    Tucson, Arizona  Monday, 9 September 2002

    Disability is a tricky subject for job seekers, employers

    Knight Ridder
    Diannalynn Schwartz, with brother John Fornes, can't stand for long periods or lift more than 20 pounds. When it could affect a new job, she has to know when to bring that up with a potential employer.

    Key questions: What to say, when to say it

    By Margaret Steen

    If you're looking for a job and you have a disability, when - and how - should you broach the subject with your potential employer?

    Too soon, and you risk being screened out before the selection process has even begun. Too late, and you could damage your relationship with your new boss if it appears you weren't honest.

    If your disability will prevent you from completing an interview unless you tell someone - for example, if you need a sign language interpreter, or if you need to make sure you can get to the interview location in a wheelchair - you'll have to bring up the subject early in the process.

    But in many cases, you have a choice about when to tell your employer. In some instances, you may not have to say anything at all.

    San Jose, Calif., resident Diannalynn Schwartz, 48, found herself in this position at her last full-time job, as a marketing director at an e-commerce company. Because of surgery on a broken leg a few years ago, she can't lift more than 20 pounds and sometimes uses a cane. But that didn't matter for an office job, so she didn't tell her boss until the boss happened to see Schwartz using her cane.

    That was an easy case. However, since she was laid off a year and a half ago, Schwartz has learned firsthand that disclosure can be much trickier. Schwartz has expanded her job search to include not only marketing jobs but also retail positions.

    Now she has to decide when to bring up the fact that she can't lift heavy objects without help, or that she can't stand for long periods of time. Should she write it on the application? Tell the interviewer at the first interview?

    Wait for a job offer?

    There are both legal and practical issues here. Legally, companies generally aren't supposed to inquire about whether you have a disability before making a job offer. But if you need some sort of accommodation, then at some point you'll have to tell the employer.

    Schwartz could try to avoid this issue until she has a job offer and then broach the subject of an accommodation for her disability. But she said she generally tells employers upfront - either on the application or in the initial interview - about her disability if the job requires standing or heavy lifting.

    "I would rather an employer know what they're getting, just like I want to know what I'm getting into," Schwartz said.

    Not all disabled workers face this decision. Mark Ruddell, who works as a contractor for IBM through a nonprofit organization called Lift, doesn't need an accommodation to do an interview. But because his cerebral palsy affects his speech, he mentions it when he begins an interview.

    "It's pretty obvious when I open my mouth, so I do make a comment about it, that if you need me to speak up or slow down, let me know," Ruddell said. "I just want them to know if they have trouble understanding me, it's OK to ask me questions."

    Both Ruddell and Schwartz said they have learned to read the body language of the person they're talking to to decide whether to offer any additional explanation of their disability. Does Ruddell need to reassure the interviewer that his disability affects only his speech, not his intellect? Does Schwartz need to explain to potential employers how she injured her leg?

    "You have to become a really savvy reader," Schwartz said.

    "I've had to just step out of the process right then and there, even when the job was for a store manager where the primary goal was to increase sales volume day over day," she said.