How to Deal

If you have a disability disclose it -- anti-discrimination laws are there to protect you.

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 25, 2010; 12:00 AM

My resume is exceptional. Consequently, I have little problem in obtaining interviews with senior company personnel. However, I fought through cancer last year and have a side effect, hopefully not permanent, of a sore throat which creates an appearance of a speech impediment. During the interviews, I mention this as a "short throat problem". Is that best or should I mention my ordeal (and success so far since the cancer is now gone) and my dealing with it. In that case, I continued to work during my entire treatment.

If you have undergone cancer treatment, even if the disease is in remission, you probably meet the definition of "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. Under the ADA, an employer may not discriminate against a "qualified" employee or applicant with a disability and it must provide a "reasonable accommodation" to disabled individuals. "Qualified" people are those who satisfy the prerequisites of a job (such as education, experience, skills, and certifications) and are able to perform essential functions of the job with or without a "reasonable accommodation."

What this means is that a prospective employer cannot decide against your candidacy for a job because of your history of cancer. Moreover, if you need an accommodation in order to complete the application process or do the job, it must be provided to you as long as it does not pose an undue hardship to the business.

It is not as clear whether the "short throat problem" that resulted from your cancer treatment would qualify as a disability under the ADA in its own right. If a prospective employer regards you as disabled because you appear to have a speech impediment, however, then you will nevertheless enjoy the anti-discrimination protections of the law. But you will not be entitled to a "reasonable accommodation" unless you have an actual disability as the ADA defines it.

You should think about what accommodations you might need to be able to succeed in the job you seek. Because your battle with cancer was so recently won, you may need to have periodic checkups that will require time away from work even before you have accrued sufficient vacation or sick leave. And, even though you were previously able to work through your treatment, I can imagine that consistently long hours or a stressful environment are probably contraindicated for you. Carefully consider what type of schedule or pace of work you might need to help you remain in good health while accomplishing your professional objectives.

You must make a strategic decision about whether to articulate your parameters now or wait until the need arises later. If you discuss these issues in the interview process, you risk being eliminated by an employer who has decided that you are more trouble than you are worth. If you instead try to play off your sore throat as a "short throat problem," you may nevertheless be eliminated by an unsympathetic employer who is biased, consciously or not, against people with speech impediments. These are two potential examples of disability discrimination, which in either case would be very hard to prove without direct evidence such as a discriminatory statement.

The most sound approach is exactly the one that you suggest: Talk openly about what you have been through in the past year and use it as an opportunity to showcase your capacity for perseverance and gain the respect and admiration of your interviewer. Someone who understands the law would then be prompted to ask you whether you would need an accommodation in order to fulfill the requirements of the job. You may in turn respond that you do not foresee such a need, except for the occasional medical appointment. Unless it is a major concern for you, which it sounds like it is not, I don't think that you should raise the specter of possibly being unavailable for high-intensity projects or to work long hours. Once you are in the job, you will be in a better position to assess what you can and can't manage.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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