Job Hunting While Living with a Disability or Chronic Illness

According to the CDC, 61 million adults (or 1 in 4 adults) in the United States live with a disability. In addition, chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the total population of the United States. In fact, the National Health Council states “more and more people are living with not just one chronic illness, such as diabetes, heart disease or depression, but with two or more conditions. Almost a third of the population is now living with multiple chronic conditions.”

These numbers are expected to keep rising.

The main criteria that determines if you quality as having a disability is whether you suffer from any sort of impairment that affects your life in a major way. A disability is officially defined as:

A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer in remission), or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn).

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, some examples* of a disability include:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • HIV
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness or hearing loss
  • Blindness or low vision
  • Epilepsy
  • Mobility disabilities such as those requiring the use of a wheelchair, walker, or cane
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Traumatic brain injury

As a general rule of thumb, non-chronic conditions of short duration, such as a sprain, infection, or broken limb, generally would not be covered under the ADA.

While so many Americans are struggling with a chronic condition or living with a disability, people with these limitations and restrictions still need to be able to provide for themselves, without fear of discrimination.

Unfortunately, when it comes to employment, people with disabilities tend to face widespread discrimination, segregation, and exclusion. The good news is federal disability right laws can provide protection. Regardless of your disabilities, you have rights. 

Preparing Yourself for Job Searching

 Federal law protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment. It’s important to know your rights when it comes to navigating a disability in the workplace.

Know Your Rights

People with disability have the following rights:

  • You do not have to inform an employer of your disability when you apply for a job or when you are hired — even if later you need a reasonable accommodation.
  • If you can do the job, it is unlawful for an employer to refuse to hire or promote you, to fire or demote you, to harass you, or to pay you less because of your disability.
  • You are also protected from unnecessary medical inquiries at work.
  • You have the right to ask for and receive “reasonable accommodations” that allow you to have an equal chance to succeed.
  • However, private employers with fewer than 15 employees are not covered by federal disability nondiscrimination laws.

Additionally, it’s important to know that job discrimination against people with disabilities is illegal if practiced by:

  • private employers
  • state and local governments
  • employment agencies
  • labor organizations
  • and labor-management committees

The  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states if you have a disability and are qualified to do a job, the ADA protects you from job discrimination on the basis of your disability. However, to be protected under the ADA you must have, have a record of, or be regarded as having a substantial, as opposed to a minor, impairment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explains:

“If you have a disability, you must also be qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation, in order to be protected from job discrimination by the ADA. First, you must satisfy the employer’s requirements for the job, such as education, employment experience, skills or licenses. Second, you must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer cannot refuse to hire you because your disability prevents you from performing duties that are not essential to the job.”

Tips for Job Hunting

Businesswoman interviewing disabled job candidateLiving with a disability or chronic illness does not make you any less qualified or capable compared to someone without a disability, but often times discrimination and stereotypes remain a barrier of entrance into the workforce.

When looking for a job, focus on the things you can control like interviewing, instead of things you can’t, like someone’s opinion.  Here are five tips for job-hunting for individuals with a disability:

  • Highlight your own abilities: Choose a role that suits your experience. Remind employers why you are the right fit for the job. Apply to positions you are qualified for and be confident in your ability to do the job.
  • Refuse to answer inappropriate and illegal questions: If you have a disability, you are not legally obligated to disclose it to an employer. Additionally, under the ADA employers cannot legally ask a candidate if they have a disability before making a job offer.
  • Address gaps in work history: It is okay to be honest with a potential employer if you have work gaps due to health issues. If you had to stop working for a period of time because of ongoing health reasons, you should feel comfortable explaining your situation. After a brief explanation, you will want to focus on highlighting your relevant work history and why you are the right fit for the job. Take the focus off your employment gap(s) and back to your qualifications.
  • Know what accommodations you need: If you already know what accommodations you will need to do your job effectively, let the employer know. Employers are legally required to provide all employees with reasonable accommodations. The sooner you notify your potential employer of your need, the more time the employer has to make reasonable accommodations. .
  • Learn from the experience: If you don’t hear back, or don’t ace an interview, don’t feel discouraged. Keep searching and pursuing your ideal job and apply any constructive feedback for future interviews.

One final tip, use the strengths you’ve gained as a result of your chronic illness or disability to your advantage.

Hannah Olson, founder and CEO of Chronically Capable, shared some ways to take advantage of your disability or illness:

  • The ability to adapt and change. Chronic illness and disability force you to adapt to frequent physical, psychological, and medical changes.
  • Time management. Your health status may require flexibility, but it also has made you more discerning and focused about how you spend your time.
  • Resilience. Changes in your health teach you mental toughness where you’re consistently challenged and need to learn to work through new obstacles.

Another thing to consider when interviewing is how you will approach the most significant dilemma you may be faced with when applying for a new position – that is, whether to disclose your health status to a potential employer. This choice is deeply personal and yours alone. However, according to Paula Moore, Diversity, Equity + Inclusion Contributor at Forbes, “unless it affects your ability to effectively perform essential job functions, there is no reason to” put your disability on your resume.

PatientsLikeMe Team of Advisors member Jed Finley tells The New York Times, “Before disclosing your illness or disability in the workplace, come up with a list of answers to questions, and before listing duties you don’t feel comfortable performing, come up with solutions that will allow you to keep doing your job.”

But whatever you do – don’t be ashamed of your illness of disability.

Managing Your Job When Living with a Chronic Illness or Disability

Three men standing and discuss in furniture factoryWorking a full-time job and having a successful career is hard enough by itself. When you throw a chronic illness into the mix, it can understandably get even more challenging.

It’s easy to get swept up in the day-to-day grind, but when you have a chronic illness, you must pay extra attention to your body and make sure you’re not overdoing it at work. It’s not always easy to prioritize your health when working a 40-hour (or more!) work week, especially with the pressure of deadlines and performance hanging over you, but taking care of your health needs to be a priority. If you aren’t feeling your best, you won’t be able perform at your best. If you need to take time off or leave early for a doctor’s appointment, communicate with your employer and take the time you need. Rescheduling or canceling your appointments because of work can make matters worse.

Once you’ve got the job, you may experience times when your disability or illness interferes with your day-to-day. Things like a bad flare-up, a progression of the illness, or a new condition, can sometimes prevent you from doing your job effectively.

It’s normal to be concerned about how to approach the situation with your employer. Here are a few tips on how to have those discussions:

Reasonable accommodation

Employees with disabilities can request accommodations for their particular needs.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that companies with more than 15 employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations to people who disclose a disability  (unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer).

A reasonable accommodation is “any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.”

Examples of reasonable accommodation may include:

  • providing or modifying equipment or devices
  • job restructuring
  • part-time or modified work schedules
  • reassignment to a vacant position
  • adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies
  • providing readers and interpreters, and
  • making the workplace readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.

It’s important to know that an employer is required under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations to a qualified employee with a disability unless the employer can prove that by allowing the accommodation, they would experience an undue hardship (i.e. endure a significant difficulty or expense).

If you need to, it is well within your right to request a reasonable accommodation for your disability or illness.

Check your company’s FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) Policy:

While this won’t necessarily apply to everyone, under a company’s FMLA policy, individuals may qualify for intermittent leave, which allows an employee to periodically miss work when they are too ill to work or have a doctor’s appointment, without getting penalized for the missed hours or days.

To qualify, you must work for a covered employer and meet the following criteria:

  • have worked for 12 months in a row
  • worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months before you take leave
  • must work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees (within 75 miles of your worksite).

If you qualify, this could give you peace of mind whenever those unpredictable health issues pop up.

It’s unlawful to discriminate in any employment practice

The ADA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate in all employment practices such as recruitment, firing, hiring, training, job assignments, promotions, pay, benefits, lay off, leave and all other employment-related activities.

It is also unlawful for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights under the ADA. Please remember that an employer cannot fire you because of your disability.

Accommodating your health needs at work

Disabled Manager Sitting With His ColleaguesEveryone with a chronic illness or disability deserves an inclusive workplace where their health needs are accommodated.

If you’re actively job searching, it can be confusing to know where to start, which is why we recommend taking advantage of platforms that are filled with inclusive employers. It will make your search easier and may alleviate the stress from wondering whether a potential employer will be accommodating to your needs.

Here are three job search platforms that work with inclusive employers:

Inclusively is “a job search platform with inclusive employers, specifically designed for disabled job seekers.” The platform connects job seekers to leading inclusive employers and open roles based on their experience, skills, and needed accommodations. Their job matching technology allows candidates to search, connect, and get recommended to jobs with leading companies who are serious about creating inclusive and accessible workplaces.

Chronically Capable
Chronically Capable is a free job search platform that is “leading the flexible work revolution for chronically ill and disabled job seekers.” They offer hand-picked jobs for every ability, working with organizations to gather flexible and remote work opportunities, part-time and full-time, from a range of industries. They also have. community of professionals who are living with a chronic illness or disability, offering events, resources, and a 24/7 private forum to their members.

ABILITYJobs is another free platform with jobs for “disabled talent.” They state that they are the only employment site where 100% of posted jobs are from employers specifically seeking to hire people with disabilities. Job seekers using this platform can feel confident they will be evaluated solely on their skills and experience. They also offer a virtual career fair for their job seekers.

Educate yourself

Many groups and websites offer help for workers with disabilities. By knowing your rights, understanding what steps you can take and learning how to advocate for yourself, you can and will find the right job for you. Here is a list of resources to help equip you on your job hunt:

You are not alone

If you or someone you know is struggling with adapting to or managing their condition in their workplace, or needs help and encouragement with their job search, PatientsLikeMe has a welcoming community of people with open arms. Join today and connect with others who understand what you are going through and can offer support.


*Please note that the ADA covers many other disabilities not listed here. There is a wide variety of disabilities that are covered, and ADA regulations do not list all of them. Some disabilities are visible, while others are not. In fact, the U.S Census Bureau estimates that 96% of chronic illnesses are invisible.



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