How To Job Hunt When You’re Disabled

Finding a job when you're chronically ill can be a challenge. So we spoke to an expert who has placed hundreds of disabled jobseekers for tips.

When my chronic illness started in the the winter of 2012, I tried to shrug off my symptoms. Desperate to keep my job at a small public relations firm, I ignored my growing fatigue and unexplained nausea and forced myself out of bed every morning… until I collapsed. I was hospitalized, and I eventually learned my illness was never going to go away – but it would take several more weeks before I would accept I couldn’t work like I had before. My illness required creative thinking.

I’ve had difficulty working full-time since. Nor am I alone: in the United States, only 22% of people with disabilities are employed, while only 4% of them were not in the market for work. Given that a billion people are disabled worldwide, that’s a huge pool of talent being ignored by employers, who can be reticent to hire people with unpredictable chronic illnesses, or limited capacities in other ways.

So what can a chronically ill or disabled jobseeker do to increase their chances of being employed?

Workbridge, a national recruitment agency based in New Zealand, works with both employers and jobseekers to help people with physical or mental health conditions find the right fit. They fill more than 3,500 positions a year, and are “inundated with employers” looking to advertise and work with them, according to Employment Consultant Nicola Zielinski.

Zielinski, who’s been working in this sector for fifteen years both in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, says that Workbridge places 90% of the people they work with. But when you’re chronically ill or disabled,

“It’s very rare that there’s not a job out there for someone,” says Zielinski, who says Workbridge places 90% of the people who come to them.  “I get asked what sort of sectors we work in, and I say: anything. People with disabilities can do all types of jobs.” You just need to maximize your chances.

Be Patient, And Think Outside The Box

Finding the right job can take time. Zielinski encourages jobseekers to find a way to connect with others first, like volunteering.

“It’s easy to look at it and see the end goal of paid employment, far away,” But you can break it down into steps. Volunteering or very part-time work can test your skills, give you new ones, and give a sense of routine and purpose that many people need.”

Paul Hoverd, a 50-year-old stroke sufferer, is a perfect example. Paul had extensive experience in many fields, including as police officer and a teacher. Feeling unable to do that sort of role following his stroke, he went through six months of job rejections. What finally got his foot in the door was when Workbridge discovered Paul’s love of animals and photography, and suggested a first step: volunteering with the local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

“Opportunity could look different to what you thought.”

The unpaid gig gave Paul the opportunity to rebuild confidence, get back into his routine post-stroke, and practice his pup photography. Soon, he was working at a canine kennel, and is now trying to take his work to a new level by attaining his Bachelor of Visual Arts and Design.

Making a plan is great, but be prepared to deviate from it, Zielinski says. “Opportunity could look different to what you thought.”

Be Upfront With Your Prospective Employers

Disclosing the nature of your disability early on means both you and your employer know your abilities and skill levels. Many companies are eager to hire qualified people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, but they are afraid of uncertainty. Being crystal clear at the outset about what your capabilities are can go a long way to removing that uncertainty from the hiring equation.

“Often people have been living with their condition for a long time, so they know exactly what their abilities are,” says Zielinski. But a lot of times, what they can or can’t do because of their illness is the elephant in the room, which no one wants to directly address. It’s understandable that a job-seeker who is feeling sensitive about their limitations might want to avoid the subject, but it’s best to just tackle the issue head on.

“It’s important to establish those so everyone feels informed. Recently I worked with someone who has Cerebral Palsy, whose speech is affected. Other than that his disability is invisible, so someone hearing that can make assumptions. He’s learned to let people know what’s going on.”

Remember: You’re Worth Hiring. 

While it’s important to let people know if you have any limitations, Zielinski says it’s still critical to keep the focus of the interview on what you can do, not what you can’t. And a big part of that is being positive.

“People will be keen to work with you if you’re positive and committed, and clear about your limitations so they know all the information from the start,” she says. “Attitude is the number one key ingredient to getting a job. Most people can learn how to do a job, but what goes a long way is someone’s willingness, honesty and openness.”

“[Getting a job is] much more about ability than disability.”

Many disabled people can understandably feel defeated by the jobseeking process even before it starts. But it’s important to go in believing in yourself, and remember that you are worth hiring. Because if you’re not going to advocate for yourself as the best person for the job, who will?

At the end of the day, most employers want the most qualified and confident person for a job. Illness or disability doesn’t necessarily factor into that. “It’s much more about ability than disability,” Zielinski says.

Employment Is A Two-Way Street

Zielinski’s advice gels with my own experience. Though I never went back to my old job full-time, I have, in the years since, been able to reclaim a lot of my sense of purpose through volunteering my PR skills to a local women’s organization, as well as freelance writing, which lets me work around my illness and set a lot of my own deadlines.

And as for community: it’s just as key as Zielinski suggested. Isolation is an issue for many people with chronic illness and disabilities. Luckily for us, we live in a world where we can get connected even if we can’t leave the house. And we can get work that way too.

The statistics don’t lie. Disability is an ever-growing challenge, and people living with it are vastly underrepresented in the workforce. But all of us have something to offer. And our best efforts should be met by employers who recognize just how much talent is going untapped.