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Ability first, disability second during the job search and career building process

According to the Government of Canada, about 4.4 million, or 14% of people living in Canada have a disability. Ranging from chronic pain to a hearing, sight, mental or learning disability, each person managing a disability faces unique challenges during the job search and career-building process.

In addition to potential physical or mental barriers that may be caused by a disability in the workplace, the largest barrier is often that of the attitude of the person with the disability, their employer, or co-workers.

The job search

“No one with a disability needs to ever disclose their disability to an employer at any stage in the interview or on the job,” says Tara Orchard, a career consultant at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“Disclosing personal information is not appropriate on the resumé. The resumé is a document highlighting your education, experience, activities and general qualifications for the job. Disability, like culture, marital status and so on, is personal information.”

Not disclosing a disability in the interview or job application ensures that an employer cannot make decisions based on a person’s disability. “An employer needs to be very certain that the person with the disability really cannot do the job, not just cannot do some of the job or the job the way it has always been done. A person with a disability may have other strengths that enable them to make a contribution in different ways and they can ‘sell’ these in the interview as strengths,” Orchard says.

Disclosing a disability can create an unfair interview process where an employer may be concerned with or distracted by disability rather than ability.

Overall, Orchard recommends disclosing a disability at a time that makes sense, which may be weeks after the job has started.

Accommodation is almost always possible

While there are some exceptional situations when a disability cannot be accommodated (for example, a blind person cannot be a bus driver), this is not often the case.

When at all possible, it is an employer’s responsibility to attempt to offer any needed accommodations for qualified applicants.  Since accommodation is nearly always possible, the largest barrier for a person with a disability is often their own attitude or self-esteem or the attitude of an employer or co-workers who see disability before ability.

“Accommodation is almost always possible . . . Keep in mind that the key is the concept of a qualified applicant. Just like anyone applying for any job, they have to have the qualifications first. Once an individual has the qualifications, disability should not be the deciding factor,” says Orchard.

A weakness in one area is often the gateway for strength in another. As with all recent grads and students, it is important to harness your strong areas, whether they be communication, relationship building, math or writing. Focusing on your strengths rather than allowing weaknesses to become barriers and your employers and co-workers will likely do the same.

Additional resources

  • Persons with Disabilities Online, created by the Government of Canada, offers an employment section with information about careers, job searching and starting your own business for those with disabilities.
  • WORKinc, created by the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, offers resources promoting equality and the meaningful employment of people with disabilities. WORKinc offers job postings, career guidance and other resources relating to education and employment of Canadians living with disabilities.
  • The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada collects and provides information on a wide variety of topics, including education and employment. The LDAC offers assistance and information to Canadians with learning disabilities at locations in ten provinces and one territory.
Photo credit: Dyslexia by Janine on Flickr

Written by

Nicole Wray is a Toronto, Canada-based online editor and freelance writer. She is a recent graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.


  1. Danielle
    June 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    I think this is definitely something people in general need to recognize. Many people who are considered disabled are really differently-abled: they have to do things in another way but can really get the task done, which is the most important thing.

    Also, with many disabilities not something you can see with the naked eye (for instance learning disabilities), oftentimes you may not actually know if someone is considered disabled.

  2. Elizabeth Baisley
    June 9, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    I have a friend with a disability that cannot be seen and she thought that she had to tell employers at the interview. Unfortunately, no one hired her — presumably because of her disability.

    Needless to say, I think a lot of people are under the assumption that they have to tell the employer at the interview or later in the job search. Hopefully this article raises some awareness about what job seekers (don’t) have to disclose.

  3. June 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    I’ve received emails and applications from probably well-meaning people who set off alarm bells from the start by writing right in the email or cover letter things such as, “I can’t stand for long periods of time because I have [whatever]” or “I find it difficult to focus because of my [whatever].”

    I’m not sure what the point of writing that was exactly, but it just made me think, “TMI!” I just need to know whether you are qualified for and capable of doing the job. If you tell me about all the things you apparently can’t do instead of what you can do, it’s not going to move you to the front of the line because you’ve missed the whole point of the cover letter exercise.


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