What can employers ask you about your disability?

Anyone with a visible disability (permanent or temporary) has an added sense of dread when they go to a job interview. Will the potential employer write them off entirely based on their own (often uninformed) views about what people can and cannot do? It can be difficult to prove that you weren’t considered for a job because of your disability if you were one of many interviewees who weren’t hired.

Employers like those described above may never overtly acknowledge an applicant’s disability. Then there’s another kind – those who ask seemingly endless questions about it.

While you may feel like you should answer all questions asked to assure the employer that you’re fully qualified for the job, it’s essential to know what is and isn’t legal to ask. Many supervisors and even human resources professionals don’t know the law. Some know, but still believe their questions are warranted (or they’re just plain curious).

So what questions are off-limits? Here are a few examples:

  • “Why do you use a wheelchair?” (or cane, walker, etc.)
  • “Do you have MS?” (or any other condition)
  • “Can you hear normally as long as your hearing aids are in?”
  • “How soon will you be off those crutches?”

Basically, employers are allowed to ask questions about a disability only as they relate to a person’s ability to perform the job for which they’re applying. They can ask something like, “Are you able to lift and carry boxes up to about 20 pounds with or without reasonable accommodations?” They can’t ask, “Do you do your own grocery shopping?”

Sometimes employers think that if an applicant brings up their disability themselves, they can follow up with any questions they have. They can’t. They also aren’t allowed to get around restrictions on what they can ask an applicant by asking someone else. For example, when they check your references, they can’t ask a former employer questions about your condition that they wouldn’t be allowed to ask you.

These restrictions are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and they apply to employers with at least 15 employees. Current employees as well as applicants are protected from these intrusive and discriminatory inquires. If you believe you’ve suffered discrimination because you did not answer questions that an employer had no right to ask or for any other reason related to a disability, find out what your legal rights are.