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Explaining a disability when applying for jobs

If you have a disability, you may have questions and maybe even concerns when applying for jobs. You might also be unsure as to how the law is applied to protect and support you. 

Living with a disability while looking for work may raise questions and concerns such as: 

  • Why should you tell your potential employer about your disability? 
  • How and when should you inform your prospective employers about your disability? 

What does the law say about disclosing a disability?

The Equality Act (2010) protects everyone from discrimination and has a section on disability.

Your employer cannot discriminate against you because of your disability. This means, if you declare your disability, it should not affect their decision when considering you for the role. 

Potential employers are allowed to ask you some questions about reasonable adjustments you might need for the interview or if you get the job. They may also ask you questions for them to monitor diversity; you do not have to answer these questions.   

Your employee must provide reasonable adjustments that you need to be able to attend the interview and to do your job comfortably and safely if you get the role. 

What to be aware of when applying for a job when you have a disability

You do not have to tell an employer about your disability, but if the employer is made aware of your disability during your application, they’ll be able to make reasonable adjustments for you at the interview and start plan any access arrangements you require if you get the job. 

When thinking how and when you should disclose your disability, think about: 

  • The nature of your disability and the activities and skills needed for the role that you’re applying for. 
  • Considerations for health and safety liabilities. 
  • The values and culture of the organisation. Some companies clearly promote inclusivity at their company, and may see your disability as an additional positive in your application. 

There are various stages where you’ll have the opportunity to tell your employer about your disability; during the application process, before the interview, at the interview and in the job. 

During the application process

  • A question on the application form. 
  • A medical questionnaire from the employer. 
  • Something that you mention in your covering letter. This can offer an opportunity to explain how you've managed a disability and indicate any reasonable adjustments needed during the recruitment process or in employment. Take a look at an example of a cover letter to explain a disability to an employer
  • If applying through a recruitment consultant, they could make the employer aware on your behalf with your permission. 
  • Your CV may have gaps, which could be a prompt for you to refer to your disability, see CVs for different scenarios
  • If you attended a specialist school or have worked for organisations in the past that have a common theme or aim relating to disability, this could serve as a clue to the employer. 

Before the interview

Try to imagine some of the questions that the employer may have about your access needs. Do this before the interview so you can plan how you will respond. Be open and honest but keep your answers to the point. 

Make a note of the access needs you have. Even if they are small requests that might not need to be officially arranged, such as needing a consistent lunch time, still make note of them so you can keep them in mind during the interview. If you decide not to declare your disability, you can think of indirect ways to check if the employer can meet your needs. For example, you might want to ask what a typical day looks like, what the office set up is like, what equipment is provided for all employees, how is the day scheduled, and if flexible working is an option.  

Remember, the interview is not just for them to get to know you, but also for you to decide if you want to work at that company in that role. It’s normal to ask an employer questions during the interview, they will usually ask if you have any questions at the end of the interview.  

At the interview

If you’ve decided not to declare your disability before the interview and don’t need any reasonable adjustments for the interview itself, then the interview may be the stage where you’d like to explain your disability with the employer. 

If you’ve already mentioned your disability in the application process, you might see the interview as an opportunity to expand on this. Give as much information as you feel is needed and you feel comfortable with. 

Use the time to talk about your achievements and to promote your experience and skills. Your disability shouldn’t be the focus of the interview. 

In the job

Finally, you could choose to wait until you’re in the job before telling the employer about your disability. You may wish to do your role for a few days (or weeks) to see if you need access arrangements to be comfortable in your workplace. You can talk about your requirements to your line manager. You may also have a Human Resources department at your work that you can talk to.

Podcasts for further support

We've created two audio recordings relating to disability and health issues. Careers Consultants Cathy and Lynne discuss why, when, and how to share information about your disability or health condition with an employer. They also talk about how to approach the recruitment process and ask for reasonable adjustments if you have dyslexia. In the next section you'll find a link to podcasts about how to talk about neurodivergence to an employer.

How to explain a disability with employers

Click here to listen 895

Cathy: Hello everyone and welcome to our podcast on sharing information with employers about your disability or health issue, when applying for jobs. My name is Cathy and my colleague Lynne and I are both careers advisers with the OU. Sharing information with employers about your disability or health issue, can feel challenging and students have many questions about whether to do this and if so, when to do this and how.

Lynne: So today, we are discussing these issues. We are going to look at each issue from a range of viewpoints and we are doing this, so you can consider what is right for you and can make a confident and informed decision about whether to tell a prospective employer and if you decide to do this, you’ll need to know how to talk to an employer effectively.

The first issue we are going to discuss is whether to tell a prospective employer about your disability when you are applying for a job vacancy.

Deciding to share information about your disability is a matter of personal choice. You are under no legal obligation to do so, and it's for you to choose if and when you tell an employer.

Cathy: Lynne is going to present the case for sharing this information with an employer and I am going to challenge this and ask the questions which I know students have asked me in the past.

So Lynne, convince me, what is the point of asking for adjustments and telling an employer about your disability or health issue when applying for a job – won’t it just put them off? Research by Great with Disability showed that 77% of people with disabilities are apprehensive about telling an employer in case of discrimination.

Lynne: The aim of telling employers is to level the playing field, so the applicant has neither an advantage or disadvantage. Sharing relevant information with an employer during the recruitment process ensures that the candidate can perform to the best of their ability. Once the adjustment has been made, the candidate can then be assessed on an equal basis with their peers. Let’s listen to what some of our employers said about this.

Employer from IBM: I would say any student out there who has any type of disability at all, if you feel comfortable and confident to do so please do let us know as early as possible where we can help you. So if it is something for example like dyslexia where in the past students with that disability would perhaps have more time at test or exam periods, or maybe more time to write essays or something like that, we will give you exactly the same treatment that you would have got when you were at school or college as well in terms of giving you extra time. So early on in the application process you can let us know if you want to. There's no pressure to. If you feel like it’s not going to influence anything and it’s not - you don’t need any extra time or any adjustments at all then obviously it’s up to you completely if you want to disclose that to us. But if you do feel like actually by getting perhaps extra time to do the online test or maybe extra time during one of the assessment activities if it’s going to be beneficial then do. Just let us know. We will always keep it confidential within our recruitment team. But I would say that’s very – very helpful and even later in the process if you maybe didn’t want to tell us immediately um when you applied but actually perhaps your assessment centre or your interview is coming closer and you think it would be beneficial to let us know then do. When you are in our process you will have a contact point so you can always get in touch with them at any point and let us know and we will do our best to make sure that we give you extra time or whatever it might be that you need from us.

Employer from Gradconsult: I think the key one for me as a top tip is to disclose your disability. I found it extremely frustrating as an employer and recruiter over many years when having asked candidates if they would like to disclose a disability at multiple points in their recruitment process I'd then have people at an assessment centre coming out of exercise saying ‘oh by the way I – I have dyslexia. Please could you make adjustments in your marking?’ And that’s simply not possible at that point in time. It’s unfair to all of the other candidates in the process. If we’d known up front we could have made those adjustments and we could have dealt with everybody fairly. So the key for me is disclose and disclose early. Be up front and honest about the adjustments that you need and that will allow you to be assessed fairly.

Cathy: But I wonder if we are talking about two different things here? Some people may need to ask for reasonable adjustments during the recruitment process, as well as in the workplace, but others may just want to ask for adjustments once they have started the job, they may be ok with interviews for example.

Lynne: Yes that’s right, and that’s why it is so important to be clear about what your needs are. If you don’t know what your needs are, it is difficult to tell others and difficult to recognise if you need adjustments during the recruitment process.

Cathy: So how would you work out what your needs are? Some people listening to this, may be crystal clear about their needs and how to meet them, but others, for example if you have dyslexia or mental health issues, well, it isn’t always straightforward. I suppose one way to identify needs and how to meet them, is to look at your experience as an OU student.

Lynne: Students don’t always realise this. The fact that they have achieved a degree through distance learning, proves to an employer that given the appropriate support, they can achieve great things. A good example is the note taking strategies which often have to be developed by students with dyslexia, who develop skills in noticing and prioritising the important points in a ream of information. This could be really useful in the workplace, in being able to identify important points in a project, or to write reports effectively.

An OU degree really says so much more about you than academic ability you have alone.

Cathy: Yes, I really agree with that, I am sure students recognise OU study proves they have initiative, good problem solving skills, commitment, self-motivation, self-discipline, determination, excellent organisational and time management skills, good communication and really well developed IT skills, to name just a few.

I bet every OU student listening to this, can recognise these skills in themselves and if not, I hope you do now!

Ok, so OU study can prove a range of skills and is also evidence of what you can achieve given the appropriate support. That makes sense.

Lynne: So would you feel comfortable sharing this information with an employer? There are benefits about being open about a disability: it means you can demonstrate your full potential; make sure you get the adjustments you need; you have honesty from the beginning of your relationship with the employer, and you can draw on your disability to answer interview questions, to show you can actually overcome challenges.

Cathy: That sounds great and I understand those advantages, but my concern is that as soon as I disclose my disability in an application form or in a covering letter, it will give an employer a reason not to short list me for an interview, as they may think I’ll cause problems for them, when I know I won’t. So for me, timing is everything, I feel it is important to tell an employer at the time which feels right for you. For example, if you need adjustments for a job interview, maybe you are hearing impaired for example, then you need to let them know beforehand.

Lynne: I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Not telling an employer in an application form or covering letter can restrict your choices when giving examples of your skills in a personal statement. How can you show them how you have overcome challenges, or how you can work in a team, if you don’t tell them about your disability?

Employer soundbite: I would say if only if a student wanted to they could even use any kind of experience they’ve had of anything like that in their life as examples as long as they felt comfortable doing so and they felt that actually that’s a really good example of one of our competencies about being driven and kind of a desire to succeed. So if they felt that would be a you know a good example and they were happy to talk about that they could incorporate it there and actually use it as a real positive um to demonstrate what they’ve done, how they’ve overcome things like this. Um but even if the student didn’t want to disclose it to us we wouldn't view them any differently from any other candidate.

Cathy: Are you saying that by hiding your disability, you are hiding your true self? Hmmm I shall think about that.

Lynne: It’s important to decide what will meet your needs and to make sure you feel comfortable informing an employer, so you can inform with confidence. Great with Disability are an organisation who support people with disabilities with regards to employment and they say that informing an employer with confidence can be broken down into three simple steps.

Step 1, choose a few words for each of these categories: firstly your disability or situation. Secondly, the implications and thirdly, your requirements

Step 2, turn these words into a short, succinct ‘openness statement’. An openness statement is simply stating these three things: your disability, the implications and your requirements is a straightforward way.

Step 3, Practice delivering your statement – to yourself, or family or a friend – it doesn’t matter but do practice saying it.

Cathy: OK, it makes sense that if you decide to tell an employer, to prepare and do this effectively, rather than blurting out the first thing that comes into your head. In fact, I really like this, these same three steps could be used to decide if you want to disclose and if you decide to do this, at what point during the recruitment process you want to do this. The careers team have produced a webinar on this, called Opening Doors, you can find it on the careers website.

Lynne: Let me give you an example. If you have dyslexia or dyspraxia, then you know that is your disability. The implications of this might be a statement such as: ‘I have a weak short-term memory and I am unable to write comprehensive notes while I am listening. My requirements are that I need to have handouts or information in advance and be able to record conversations, with participants’ permission of course’. Then you could give examples of situations where you have used strategies and support to overcome the issues faced by you.

Cathy: You have touched precisely on my concern. The issue of telling an employer, isn’t one size fits all. People need to think about what is right for them and their situation, they may even vary their approach according to the employer and the vacancy being applied for.

Lynne: Some employers have publicly stated they are positive about disability and it is easy to identify them. There are three main ways. Firstly, there is the business disability forum, then there is the two tick symbol and then there are organisations who make sure they place their vacancies with organisations which specialise in supporting people with disabilities into employment. You can read about this on the careers website and in our career planning and job seeking workbook – which you can order or view from the careers site.

Cathy: But the Equality Act covers all employers except the Armed Forces, and if you choose to tell an employer, I suppose yes you are covered by the Act. Having said that, it is a matter of personal choice, if and when to tell and employer.

Lynne: So what you are saying that everyone needs to make their own mind up according to their situation and the job being applied for and I’m saying that in general, telling an employer is more beneficial than not telling them, although there is no legal obligation to do so. You need to think about whether your disability raises a health and safety issue for you or your future colleagues, if this is the case, then telling an employer will ensure there is a safe working environment. You may also wish to disclose if you need adjustments, as we’ve discussed. You are right, once you have told an employer about a disability, you are protected by the Equality Act. This means the employer must take all reasonable steps to provide the necessary adjustments and mustn’t discriminate against you because of you disability.

Cathy: So if you choose not to tell your employer and later underperform, you are not covered by the Equality Act. An employer who was unaware of an employee’s condition can’t be judged to have discriminated against them.

Lynne: The types of adjustment you can ask for include: physical access, use of technology, change to the format of the interview, use of an interpreter, additional time and an orientation visit before the interview. It’s important to remember that when to tell an employer also includes once you have the job offer and you can choose who to tell, your line manager or HR and you can ask that co-workers aren’t told, if that is what you prefer.

Cathy: I suppose if your condition affects the way you work, it can be helpful to be open with colleagues, so they understand and can help with any particular needs.

Lynne: That’s right and there are similar points to consider throughout the application process, but if there is section on the application form asking about serious health conditions or disabilities, although you don’t have to disclose your disability here, you mustn’t lie. You can leave it blank. You can also use the personal statement section to tell the employer about your disability.

Cathy: One issue is having a gap in your CV due to the effects of your illness or disability. How do you deal with this? Just hope they won’t notice, or put a vague statement such as ‘personal circumstances to be discussed at interview’?

Lynne: You can use a covering letter to explain this and present it in a way which puts you in a positive light. The careers team can help you with this. If you mention a disability in a covering letter, show how it has further developed the skills and experience you have mentioned in your CV. For example, point to how well you’ve achieved your goals, despite any challenges. Some people prefer talking about it face to face at the interview, where they can more clearly demonstrate their skills. It is really up to each individual to make their choice.

Cathy: So we agree people need to think about the implications of their disability or health issue, and what their needs are. If you decide to tell an employer, to have positive examples ready to show how you have overcome obstacles and you have already developed highly effective strategies which you can prove through OU study.

Lynne: Yes, and to decide when to tell an employer, at the application stage, during the interview or after the job offer. To know exactly what you want to say and practice saying it. The careers team are more than happy to support people with this and there is advice on the webinar Opening Doors about how to tell an employer.

Cathy: So we agree that people need to give some thought to this and make up their own minds.

Lynne: That we can agree on. Thank you for listening to this podcast and remember that the careers team are happy to support students in telling an employer and how and when to do this, if you decide this is right for you. So do feel free to get in touch with us.

How to share information about your dyslexia with potential employers

Click here to listen 677


Hello everyone and welcome to this podcast where I shall cover ways of approaching job seeking, if you have dyslexia. My name’s Cathy and I’m a careers adviser with the OU. I shall cover whether to tell an employer you have dyslexia and then how to approach each stage of the job seeking process.

You will find advice on all aspects of the job seeking process, from CVs to interviews, on the resource links linked to this webcast, including our Career Planning and Job Seeking Workbook, which covers all aspects of planning your future.

Whether or not to inform a potential employer you have dyslexia and ask for reasonable adjustments, is a question which concerns many. Employers have a legal duty to ensure that an employee with a disability is not treated less favourably. An example of a reasonable adjustment for dyslexia could be assistive technology, such as a digital recorder or coloured overlays.

My aim is to present both sides of the debate and to look at ways of doing this, so, if you decide to tell an employer, you can do this positively and effectively.

The important point to remember is that you have a choice, you are not obliged to disclose, and you need to decide what is right for you – and what feels right may vary from job application to job application.

Some application forms have equal opportunities sections and these often ask if you have a long term condition which affects you on a daily basis. If you are applying for a job where dyslexia won’t affect your ability to perform the role, you may not feel it is relevant. But it is worth considering the risks of not disclosing. For example, there may be stages in the recruitment process, such as online tests or panel interviews, where adjustments could make the difference to whether you are offered the job or not. If you fail an online test and haven’t told an employer, and then you ask for the effects of your dyslexia to be considered, the employer may not be able to help. It is not generally possible to ask for it to be taken into consideration retrospectively.

If you decide to disclose, then you need to consider how and when you feel comfortable doing this.

Firstly let’s look at how to disclose.

Make sure you don’t just state ‘I have dyslexia’ – you need to be positive and give examples of how you have developed skills to address the challenges faced. Don’t dwell on it so it takes attention away from other aspects of who you are, the skills and experience you have to offer.

For example, you could show how you have undertaken OU study successfully despite the challenges and use this as evidence of successful strategies. For example, note taking strategies which often have to be developed by students with dyslexia, who develop skills in noticing and prioritising the important points in a whole ream of information. This could be useful in being able to identify important points in a project, or to write concise and pithy reports.

Remember the positive attributes dyslexia can bring. The British Dyslexia Association say that Specific Learning Difficulties are linked to 'big picture' thinking, problem-solving or lateral thinking abilities, an instinctive understanding of how things work, or originality. I thought you may want to know that we have a webinar called ‘Opening Doors’ which covers how to tell an employer if you have a disability or specific learning difficulty. Do take a look – you will find it on the Forums and Webinars page on the careers website.

I now want to look at ways of organising job seeking and issues to consider at each stage. We know that some students have found the whole recruitment process confusing and it might help people to have a timeline of events. For example, when the application form has to be in by, when the interview is etc. You could set this up as a spreadsheet or use Word – whichever you feel more comfortable with. Or you may prefer to use a good old-fashioned large sheet of paper!

Then take it in manageable steps, the careers team are here to support you in doing this. The first step is to understand the job description and personal specification. Print the job description and then colour code the sections. Then, think about examples you can give which show you can fulfil their requirements. Make a map of your examples and colour code them, then match these colours to the colour-coded sections on the employer’s personal specifications. By matching the two colours you can be sure you meet all their criteria.

Then, you can also use this as a framework to plan your personal statement, which generally forms part of the application form.

And that brings me nicely to the second step. Now, the second step is for you to prepare a CV and job application. Have a CV template saved on your computer and target it, by that I mean tweaking it, for each vacancy you apply for. It has to be different every time. Use the job description and personal specification to make sure your CV is relevant.

If you tell an employer about your dyslexia in a CV or covering letter – don’t dwell on it but use positive examples of strategies and successes in overcoming the challenges. And, you’ll find examples of covering letters in our Career Planning and Job Seeking Workbook. You may decide to tell an employer in the Equal Opportunities section of the application form. If you do this, be positive and describe strategies used in your OU study or previous jobs.

Always ask someone to proof read your application form, as spelling and grammatical errors are often used to eliminate candidates from the application process.

The third step may be online tests, which can present challenges for people with dyslexia. You may find it helpful to practise free samples online. You can ask for extra time or alternative formats, including font, or colour, or even a paper alternative. You can read more about online tests and where to find practice tests on the resource list linked to this podcast. The fourth and final step is usually the interview. You may decide to tell an employer you have dyslexia before the interview, so reasonable adjustments can be made. This will vary for every one of you as dyslexia affects everyone differently.

One reason people ask for reasonable adjustments if they have difficulty with compound questions, by this I mean where there are questions within questions. An example of this is: ‘How fulfilling have you found your current job and your OU study?’ Really, there are two questions here – one about your job, one about OU study - and each has a potentially different answer.

If dyslexia affects your working memory, compound questions can be challenging. You may wish to use memory strategies you have developed or use techniques like summarising to make sure you have understood correctly before going on, or you can explain to the interviewer that you’ll break down each part of the question and ask them to prompt you if you miss something out.

Mock interviews can be very helpful and the careers team are happy to help with this and interview preparation generally. We have produced a webinar on interviews, so do take a look.

If you decide to tell the employer about your dyslexia during the interview and not beforehand, prepare what you are going to say and practise saying it out loud to yourself or to family or friends before the interview, this way it will feel familiar come the big day. Sometimes, people find recording examples which show you have the skills and experience they want, is a very helpful way, because then you have an audio record of your examples. You can use this to write down headings on a piece of paper, which you can take with you into the interview. You’ll need to take paper into the interview with you anyway, most people do this, and because it’s always a good idea to write down the questions you may want to ask them at the end of the interview. Or you can use a small notebook or postcards. So we have covered whether to tell an employer, how to tell an employer and aspects of the job seeking process. Now, I am going to ask a very obvious question but I have a reason for asking it. If someone asked you to explain what dyslexia is, could you do this?

If your answer is yes – great, fantastic! If not, you may need to work on this, as it will be down to you to explain what it is and how it affects you, you need to be the expert. You will find definitions on the websites listed in the resource section linked to this podcast. The resources linked to this podcast cover all aspects of the recruitment process, including webinars on interviewing, job seeking and how to contact a careers adviser for one to one guidance.

I just want to add a final word. You need to become the reassuring expert on dyslexia. You can do this by emphasising the skills you have developed in addressing the issues you have faced and by giving examples of successful strategies you have used. And, people in the past, students, have told me it is these examples that can get them the job.

Thank you for listening to this podcast, good luck with your job seeking and if you need more advice, please contact the careers team, we will be more than happy to support you.

Talking about your neurodivergence with an employer

The Neurodiversity at work two-part podcast series has been produced to help with the move into employment if you’re neurodivergent. Professionals from the social enterprise Genius Within give their advice about the benefits of disclosing neurodivergence to an employer and hear from graduates who have used their neurodivergent traits as strengths in the workplace.

Useful resources

  • Disability Rights UK

    An organisation that work to create a society where disabled people have equal power, rights and equality of opportunity.

  • Doing Careers Differently

    A downloadable booklet from Disability Rights UK

  • Lead Scotland

    A Scottish charity supporting disabled people and carers by providing personalised learning, advice and information services.

  • MyPlus Students

    Is a club that helps students and graduates with disabilities land their dream job through advice and disability confident job listings.

  • Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB)

    Is a charity that provides a range of information and support for blind and partially sighted people, including resources to support you in finding work and in your job.

  • Centre for Mental Health

    A thinktank that aims to solve mental health inequalities and injustice by changing policy and practice.

  • The Shaw Trust

    An organisation that supports disabled people to prepare for work and find jobs. They offer a service for students and graduates with disabilities, dyslexia or specific learning difficulties.

  • The Association of Disabled Professionals

    An association that provides employment advice and peer support to disabled people.

  • British Dyslexia Association

    An organisation that provides careers advice and how to get a graduate job if you have dyslexia.

Last updated 1 year ago