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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 disabled job-seekers.

Dealing with a disability often brings various challenges and looking for work may feel like an additional challenge that raises questions and concerns for you, such as:

  • Why should you disclose your disability?
  • How and when should you disclose a disability to prospective employers?

What does the law say regarding disclosure of a disability?

If you have a disability, you should be aware of your rights, which will help protect you from discrimination.

Notable parts of the Equality Act (2010) include:

  • Prospective employers aren’t allowed to ask you any disability-related questions, except to make limited enquiries to ascertain if any reasonable adjustments would need to be made for you. These adjustments could be required at interview, or when carrying out the role. They can also ask specific questions to monitor diversity, which are voluntary to answer.
  • Employers are encouraged to treat disabled candidates more favourably, with exception of favouring a person with particular type of disability over another person’s impairment.
  • The removal of the barriers that you may have previously faced when requesting reasonable adjustments to be made for you in the workplace.

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

When seeking a job, there’s no obligation for you to tell them about your disability, but you should bear in mind the following:

  • It’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you in the hiring process for having a disability.
  • If the employer’s made aware of your disability during your application, they’ll be able to ensure they can make reasonable adjustments for you at the interview and start to think ahead about any adjustments required if they were to offer you the job.

If you haven’t been asked, should you still advise the employer about your disability?

This decision is entirely up to you. But you must be aware that if you decide not tell to your employer and you encounter issues later on when trying to perform your job role, you may not be protected by the Equality Act.

Furthermore, if your employer was unaware of your disability, they can't be deemed to have acted in a discriminatory fashion towards you.

When to explain your disability to a prospective employer

One of the most common questions asked is “How and when should I disclose my disability?” The answer to this question depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • The nature of your disability and the activities / type of 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 display a positive attitude to applicants with disabilities.

There are various stages where you’ll have the opportunity to advise your employer about any barriers you may face. These are detailed below.

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 covering letter to explain a disability to an employer.
  • If applying through a recruitment consultant, this could be something that you‘ve previously discussed together and 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 special 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.

Useful tip

Try and anticipate some of the questions that the employer may have relating to your disability, think ahead in advance of the interview to decide on the kind of answers you might offer. Be open and honest. Keep your answers succinct and try and use positive language wherever possible.

At the interview

If you’ve decided you don’t wish to declare your disability ahead of the interview and believe you don’t need any reasonable adjustments made for the interview itself, then it might be the interview is the stage where you’d like to explain your disability face to face with the employer.

Similarly, if you’ve already mentioned your disability in the application process, you might see the interview as an opportunity to expand on this, only giving as much information as you feel is needed and / or that you feel comfortable with.

Use the time to talk about your achievements, any positive outcomes of dealing with your disability and to promote your experience and skills. Your disability shouldn’t be the main focus of the interview.

When employed in the job

Finally, you could choose to wait until you’re employed and in the job before advising the employer of your disability. You may wish to undertake your role for a few days (or weeks) to see if your condition even affects your ability to do the job.

In this instance, you should approach either your line manager or the HR department.

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.

Useful resources

  • Disability Rights UK

    Formed through a unification of Disability Alliance, Skill, Radar and National Centre for Independent Living on 1 January 2012.

  • Doing Careers Differently

    A downloadable booklet from Disability Rights UK

  • Lead Scotland

    A voluntary organisation set up to widen access to learning for disabled young people, adults and carers across Scotland.

  • MyPlus Students

    Offering information and advice for disabled students and graduates, MyPlus Students supports you through applying for jobs and going through the recruitment process.

  • Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB)

    This website has information to help you get a new job, retain your current one and know your rights in the workplace.

  • Centre for Mental Health

    Aims to help to create a society in which people with mental health problems enjoy equal chances in life.

  • The Shaw Trust

    Supporting disabled and disadvantaged people to prepare for work, The Shaw Trust helps people find jobs and live more independently. It offers a service for students and graduates with disabilities, dyslexia or a specific learning difficulty.

  • The Association of Disabled Professionals

    Provides employment advice and peer support to disabled people. Members also give advice based on their particular employment experience.

  • British Dyslexia Association

    Provides careers advice and how to get a graduate job if you have dyslexia.

Last updated 2 days ago