Ultimate Guide to Employment as a Person with a Disability

Alt text: Wooden arrow sign pointed to the right with the words "Dream Job" printed on it. Behind it is a blue sky with white clouds.

As someone who believes in the necessity of government assistance programs like SSI/SSDI, the amount provided is not always enough to live the life that you want to live. However, navigating the employment arena for someone with a disability can be a very challenging realm.

Money isn’t everything, BUT it does provide opportunities. In fact, it would be ignorant for me to say that money doesn’t play a huge role in our day-to-day lives. Money is what allows us to have food on the table, receive needed healthcare and medications, explore our beloved hobbies, pursue higher education, and go on much desired trips near or far. And to get money, we of course need to have a job.

Some common concerns I’ve heard from clients include: “how will working affect my benefits?” “when/how do I disclose that I have a disability?” and “I don’t even know where to begin.” But I have good news for you. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more and more disabled individuals are employed (21.3% in 2022, up from 2.2 percentage points [19.1%] in 2021). While I personally wish that number was higher, to me this also indicates that companies are hiring more and more people with disabilities. 

So, in this guide, we at OTernative Perspectives seek to demystify navigating the employment realm. There is a lot to cover here so definitely tune back in for more articles on getting a job when you have a disability! In fact, if you have any particular topics, you’d like us to cover please feel free to comment below or reach out to us at oternativeperspectives@gmail.com. With that, in this guide we will provide a broad overview on job searching, government programs that can aid in the job search, and tangible steps you can take now to get you on your way to your new job.

General Job Searching and Applying Tips

Embarking on a job search can be an exciting yet challenging endeavor for anyone. However, for individuals with disabilities, there are additional considerations and barriers to overcome. In this section, we will go over the mindset involved when beginning your job search, what makes a good resume, the interview process, and how to ask for reasonable accommodations. 

1. Defining Personal Strengths

One of the first things clients I have worked with in the supported employment field have told me is this: “what do I have to offer? I mean, I don’t have much and haven’t been able to do much because of my disability.” And to that I tell them (and to you too) “oh but you do!” Because you do. 

You have amazing and employable skills. Because believe it or not, through living life with your disability you have developed skills that many non-disabled individuals have not had the chance to develop.

For example, do you need to manage multiple medications and medical appointments every day, week, or month? You do? That’s an amazing skill because that means you have great organizational and communication skills. How else do you think you are able to manage all of that? Do you use assistive technology to get your household chores done? If so, that’s awesome! That means you are open to learning complicated or new technology, are flexible in your thinking, and can critically think through tough or inefficient situations. 

What I am getting at is that your life experiences have provided you with opportunities to hone and master essential job skills. As frustrating or scary your situations may have been, these situations were also opportunities to develop easily translatable skills for a job. And, as you’ll see in the next point, could serve as great stories to help you ace your job interview.

So, what I want you to do is this, either through audio recording, writing on paper, or digitally I want you to think about and record the following: 

  • Identify your story or stories: Recall times of challenge. What was happening then? What did you do to overcome that challenge? Was anyone there to help you through it?  
  • Assess your abilities and skills: Identify your strengths, talents, and unique skills that can be valuable in the workplace. These can be hard or soft skills.

    Hard skills are technical skills such as coding, sorting (such as pill management), documenting, cooking, etc.

    Soft skills are “non-tangible” skills such as being attentive to detail, empathetic, dependable/reliable, team player, detail oriented, etc. Hint: Take the stories you have recorded and list at least 5 skills or things you had to do to overcome those situations. Keep them no more than 1 or 2 words long 

2. Crafting a Resume

Often the clients I had the opportunity to work with had little to no work experience. To gather those experiences, I would set up volunteering opportunities, and as a job coach and developer I would then use that time to build work skills (such as the hard and soft skills mentioned in the first tip). I would then work collaboratively with my client to construct a resume.

This process is why I suggest applying to receive Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services or other similar services, that way you have a professional who can help craft a resume that will get through employer’s automated application process or connect you with employers who have made it a goal for them to hire more people with disabilities.

For those that may not be able to receive these services or are on their waiting list and want to get a head start, here are some tips we have for you when creating your resume. 

  • Length: While it has been drilled in my head to keep resumes no longer than 1 page, what I have found is that 2 pages is just fine. BUT if you do have 2 pages, make sure it is relevant and vital to understanding who you are as an employee. Keep the most important things up top. 
  • Name and contact information: Ensure your name is centered and between 16-24 pt font in an easily readable font like calibri, arial, or times new roman. On a new line put your contact information such as the best number to reach you and email. If you have an online profile like a LinkedIn, feel free to include that link here as well. 
  • General formatting: Stay away from any wacky colors and use an easy-to-read font like calibri, arial, or times new roman. Black font is perfectly fine. All section headings such as “work experience,” “skills/certifications,” and “education” should be between 14-16 pt font. All other writing should be in 11-12 pt and using the same font as the section headings. 
  • Education: If you do have a higher education degree such as an Associates or Bachelors or any other degree that required post-high school education, create a section for it and include the school you attended, date you received the degree (or if you’re still in school “expected graduation”) and the type of degree (ex. For my undergraduate I would write B.S. Molecular & Cellular Biology). 
  • Emphasizing relevant experiences: Highlight relevant experiences, internships, and volunteer work that you have done over the years. Be sure to include the name of the business/organization and dates you were involved with them. 
  • Create a relevant skills/certification section: In list form, highlight the specific hard and soft skills you bring to the table. If you had experience in healthcare write down any specific Electronic Medical Records (EMR) systems you have experience with. 

    If you had done creative projects like graphic design, painting, or woodworking, specify the type of creative medium and associated programs you worked with. If you have any additional certifications list those too! For example, as an Occupational Therapy student I was able to get MoCA (a specific assessment on cognition) certified. 
  • Have someone you trust review it: It always helps to have a second pair of eyes on a resume. This helps to make sure that the message you want to get across is actually being communicated. 

You have your resume and someone reviewed it and they thought it looked good. Great! It’s time to begin the job search. When doing so, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Platform: If you are job searching independently, then you will most likely be using Indeed or LinkedIn. These are totally fine platforms to use. But remember that some companies require you to submit your application on their website so don’t be surprised if after you click on the “Apply Now” button, it redirects you to the company’s specific application page. 
  • Quality not quantity: Often when people are applying they may be inclined to submit 20 applications in one sitting and call it good. As a job coach and developer, the goal I would establish with my clients was between 3-5 applications per week.

    Why 3-5? I’ll admit there was no scientific reason for these numbers. However, what I found was that by limiting our job applications to 3-5 a week we were able to better research the companies to see if their mission was in line with being a more inclusive employer and if that specific business location (if it was a franchise like Walmart, Fred Meyer, Schnucks, etc.) was a relatively good place to work (Note: while workplace reviews are important, you must take them with a grain of salt).

    Additionally, having only a handful of interviews to schedule is a lot less daunting than needing to schedule 10+ interviews and it lowers the likelihood of sending the right email to the wrong company. 
  • Networking opportunities: One of the best ways my clients were able to get a job that matched them and their needs as an employee was through job/career fairs. These can often be found throughout the year at community colleges or libraries.

    If transportation is a challenge for you at the moment, online career fairs are becoming more popular. At career fairs, make sure to dress in accordance with the type of industry you are hoping to work in.

    While yes, I have seen it done with people getting jobs dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, I will say their charisma, confidence, and job-specific skills was unmatched. 2/10 would not recommend (unless you have the charisma of Ryan Reynolds selling in his Mint Mobile ads). 
  • Seek guidance and support: Job coaches and developers are excellent individuals to work with when it comes to finding the right job for you and they are usually contracted through your state’s vocational rehabilitation program or Ticket-to-Work. With that, I know that wait lists can be a bit difficult to get through.

    So, if you are looking for support, we do offer paid-by-the-hour 1:1 private job coaching sessions. Currently we offer 1-hour sessions for $15/hr. Find more about that here to get started today. 

4. Navigating the Interview Process

The interview process can be very anxiety-inducing and despite all of the interviews I’ve attended both for myself and my clients, I still find a little bit of adrenaline kicking in.

So aside from practicing your answers to questions like “where do you see yourself in 5 years” or “tell me about yourself” or countless other interview questions you can find around the internet, let me tell you about how I frame it with my clients. 

  • 0 to 100 confidence scale: While I will go into further detail on a future article, I will briefly touch upon it here. At the core of an interview, the interviewer is trying to determine if you are a good match for the position they’re hiring for and the company itself.

    So, your goal as the applicant is to raise their confidence level in you to 100% or at least as close to it as possible (good news, since you are being interviewed, you can be confident that they’re at least 50% confident in you as a potential hire). To do so, you as the interviewee want to address their concerns in hiring you.

    Some common concerns are “can this person be a liability for the company?” “Will this person reach productivity at the end of our orientation?” “Would this person get along with the other employees?” Now, while the interviewer may not outright ask these questions, you want to formulate your answers to answer them.

    Ways of doing that include mentioning their mission and values and indicating how that aligns with what you bring to the table, (short) stories on how you worked as a team member, asking questions about the company that you can then add onto. Of course, there will be other industry specific questions to answer, but that is something only you can answer.  
  • Your 0 to 100 confidence scale: Remember, while getting a job is great, what can be very disheartening is getting hired for a job that cannot meet your needs as a person with a disability and then leaving or getting let go because of it (yes, it does happen).

    This is why it is so important for you to do your due diligence and research the company beforehand. If during the interview the interviewer is not getting you as close to your 100 confidence scale that you are comfortable with, then 9 times out of 10 it is better to stop pursuing the job and apply for someone else.

    And this is because not only may you find it difficult to work the job, but if you leave the job after 6 months of working what is called Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) this can affect the work benefits you receive from Social Security, particularly the Trial Work Period benefit
  • Should I disclose?: This is the most common question I receive with my clients. With that question comes a second, usually unspoken, question, “will they discount me because of my disability?” And frankly, this is a question I go back and forth on as it very much depends on the individual.

    But, in general it is often better to disclose sooner rather than later. The reason is because disclosing your disability affords you with protections from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) AND opens the pathway for you to attain reasonable accommodations.

    Now, from an interviewer’s perspective, disclosing your disability (and what you need to work your job to the fullest) can actually act as confidence booster for them. To the interviewer this signals that you are honest AND that you have already found solutions to these problems reinforcing the fact that you are indeed a problem solver and critical thinker.

    Yes, despite the ADA stating that people with disabilities cannot be discriminated against in the workplace or in the hiring process, disabled individuals still get discriminated against (usually by citing some other aspect that is not related to your disability).

    However, if after disclosing your disability to your future employer’s opinion of you is negatively affected, you most likely dodged a bullet in the first place, saving you the heartache and a trial-work-month. 

5. Negotiating Reasonable Accomodations

So you made you resume, applied to a few jobs, attended a couple of interviews and hey! You’re employed! Congratulations!!!!

Now, as someone with a disability, you may need accommodations to be able to do the “essential functions” of your job. Here are a few things to know when it comes to attaining them: 

  • The keyword here is “Reasonable”: For any accommodations to occur, there must be a conversation between you and your employer. There are many accommodations that exist, but some don’t necessarily count as reasonable.

    This is why it is necessary for you to become informed on what is considered “Reasonable” and having the justifications to back it up. This article from the ADA National Network provides a good overview on what that is. 
  • An employer is allowed to request medical documentation: Employer also have rights under the ADA. One of those rights is to attain documentation that proves you do have a disability.

    This can be problematic for those who have conditions which may not be considered a medically defined disability.

    As such it’s important that you have your medical records in order and/or have potential solutions to meeting the essential job functions of your new position. 
  • Vocational Rehabilitation (VR): If you are a client (or customer in their lingo) of VR, you may be able to get your accommodations paid for. This can include technology and equipment like a specialized stethoscope for healthcare workers to communication devices. 

    While the job search journey may present unique obstacles for you as a disabled individual, it is essential to remember that talent, determination, and resilience know no boundaries.

    By embracing your personal strengths, leveraging available resources, and self-advocacy you can navigate the job market with confidence.

In the following sections, I will provide a brief overview of government programs that may be available in your state. Following this guide, I intend to create more articles that dives more into the specifics of each program and what you can expect or do to get the most out of them. 

Pre-ETS

Pre-ETS stands for Pre-Employment Transition Services, which are offered by vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies to assist individuals with disabilities in their transition from school to employment or higher education.

Pre-ETS programs aim to equip students with the necessary skills, knowledge, and support to successfully pursue their career goals. 

Here are some key points about Pre-ETS in vocational rehabilitation: 

  • Purpose: The primary purpose of Pre-ETS is to help students with disabilities explore career options, develop essential employment skills, and make informed decisions about their future.
  • Eligibility: Eligibility for Pre-ETS typically extends to students with disabilities who are either in high school or in a post-secondary educational program like community college or a 4-year university.

    Eligibility criteria may vary by jurisdiction or VR agency, so it’s important to consult the specific guidelines of your local VR agency. 
  • Services Offered: Pre-ETS programs offer a range of services tailored to the needs and goals for you. Some common services may include:
    • Career exploration and counseling: Assisting you in identifying your interests, strengths, and career goals through assessments and individualized counseling sessions. 
    • Work readiness training: Providing training on job search strategies, resume writing, interview skills, workplace etiquette, and other essential employment skills. 
    • Job shadowing and work-based learning experiences: Offering opportunities for you to gain firsthand experience in various work environments, enabling you to explore different careers and develop practical skills. 
    • Self-advocacy and disability disclosure training: Equip you with the knowledge and skills to advocate for your needs in educational and employment settings, as well as understanding when and how to disclose your disability. 
    • Assistive technology and accommodations: Assessing and providing assistive technology devices, tools, and reasonable accommodations to support you in your academic and vocational pursuits.
    • Post-secondary education support: A Pre-ETS professional will help you navigate the transition to higher education, including application processes, accessing disability services on campus, and academic success strategies. 
  • Collaboration with School Systems: Pre-ETS programs often collaborate with schools, special education departments, and transition coordinators to ensure a coordinated and seamless transition process for students. This collaboration helps in identifying eligible students, sharing information, and providing support services. 
  • Individualized Plans: Pre-ETS services are typically tailored to meet the unique needs and goals of each student. VR agencies work closely with students, their families, and other stakeholders to develop Individualized Plans for Employment (IPE) that outline specific goals, services, and timelines.
  • VR Agency Support: Vocational rehabilitation agencies have trained professionals who specialize in assisting individuals with disabilities in their career development and employment goals. They provide guidance, counseling, and support throughout the Pre-ETS process. 

    Pre-ETS programs play a vital role in empowering students with disabilities by providing them with the necessary tools, resources, and support to achieve their career aspirations.

    By facilitating your transition from school to employment or higher education, Pre-ETS aims to maximize your potential, independence, and overall quality of life.

    If you or someone you know could benefit from this program, talk to your or their social worker. You can also type in Google the following “Vocational Rehabilitation [your state] Pre-ETS services.” 

Supported Employment

Supported Employment is a service provided by vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies (and others) to assist individuals with disabilities in obtaining and maintaining competitive employment.

It is an evidence-based approach that focuses on personalized support to help individuals with disabilities achieve their employment goals. The following are brief points on what Supported Employment is and how it can help live the life you want to live: 

  • Purpose: The primary goal of Supported Employment is to help individuals with disabilities attain and retain employment in integrated work settings (meaning as a disabled individual you are working with others, disabled and non-disabled). 
  • Individualized Approach: Supported Employment recognizes that each person has unique abilities, interests, and support needs. The service is tailored to you, taking into consideration your skills, preferences, and employment goals.
  • Team-based Approach: As a client, you will typically have multiple members on your team to help you find a job. This team includes a social worker, job developer/coach, and your guardian (if you have one).

    Job developers/coaches are not necessarily employees of VR or other state agencies. Often, VR contracts out to other supported employment agencies/businesses. These businesses, such as OTernative Perspectives is paid based on contracts provided by VR or other state agencies. 
  • Job Development: Your job coach/developer often collaborate with employers to understand their workforce needs. Based on your interests, skillset, and business need your coach may then setup an interview with the employer.

    The focus is on helping you attain what’s called “competitive employment”, where individuals earn wages like a typical employee.

    That said, the expectation is not necessarily for you to work 20-40 hours immediately. You will most likely work with your job coach and the employer to come up with a plan that can best support you while also meeting the needs of the business. 
  • Ongoing Support: A key aspect of Supported Employment is providing ongoing support to individuals after they are placed in a job. This support is designed to help you navigate challenges, develop workplace skills, and maintain employment success.

    Support can include job coaching, skills training, counseling, and accommodations. That said, at least in the state (WA) I’ve worked in, the ongoing job coaching support only lasts 90 days (But there may be other programs available post-VR).

    After these 90 days, the assumption is that you have reached “stability” in your job and thus the need for a job coach is not needed.

    The reason for this is because the job coach must balance your needs along with other clients’ needs and on VR’s end the counselors are typically balancing their own caseload of sometimes 50-100 clients who need services as well.

    However, if the need does arise that you need further support, communicate with your social worker and job coach/developer to see what additional options are there. 
  • Supported Employment is not just through VR: While the main agency mentioned in this section was VR, there are other state-specific programs that may be available for you to utilize that provides more intensive services, like having a job coach on the job with you every month for as long as you qualify.

    For example, WA state has the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) and Aging and Long-Term Support Administration (ALTSA).

    Nationally, the Ticket-to-Work program also exists, however, such services are less intensive than VR, but can be great to act as an advisor for you when it comes to navigating work, benefits, and your disability as you continue past VR. 

Ticket-to-Work (TTW)

Ticket to Work is a program initiated by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that aims to support individuals with disabilities in achieving financial independence through employment.

The program offers individuals the opportunity to access employment support and other resources while maintaining access to their Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

It is a program that also seeks to catch people who may be waiting for VR services, especially if they may not necessarily need intensive supported employment assistance. The ultimate goal of TTW is to help people taper off of receiving benefits. But don’t worry, most participants in TTW take greater than a year before being completely off benefits.

In fact, even after you lose your benefits, there are systems in place to get you back onto benefits without needing to go through the entire process again. 

Here is a summary of what Ticket to Work entails: 

  • Eligibility: The Ticket to Work program is available to individuals ages 18 to 64 who receive SSDI or SSI benefits due to their disability. You must be willing and able to work towards gaining self-sufficiency (in other words, to get off benefits).
  • The Ticket: Eligible individuals are provided with a “Ticket,” which is a document that represents their eligibility to participate in the program. The Ticket can be assigned to an approved Employment Network (EN) or a state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency.
  • Employment Networks (ENs): ENs are private or public organizations that have entered into an agreement with the SSA to provide vocational rehabilitation, job placement, and other employment support services to individuals with disabilities. ENs assist participants in finding suitable employment and achieving their employment goals. 
  • Services Offered: Ticket to Work participants can access a variety of services through their chosen EN or VR agency. These services may include career counseling, vocational training, job placement assistance, resume development, job coaching, and ongoing support to help individuals succeed in the workplace.

    Currently, there is also a big push for ENs and related agencies to provide benefits counseling services (this link will pull up a Google search for you), so that you can have a greater understanding on how working affects your benefits. 
  • Work Incentives: As a participant in TTW you are eligible in receiving various work incentives to assist in your transition from unemployment to work. These incentives include continued cash benefits and healthcare coverage during the transition phase, protection against medical Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs), and extended Medicare or Medicaid eligibility.
  • Support for Self-Sufficiency: Again the ultimate goal of Ticket to Work is to help individuals with disabilities achieve self-sufficiency through gainful employment. Participants are encouraged to pursue long-term employment and reduce their reliance on disability benefits by utilizing the services and supports available through the program. 
  • Voluntary Participation: Participation in the Ticket to Work program is voluntary. Individuals with disabilities can choose whether to assign their Ticket to an EN or VR agency and engage in the program based on their individual needs, goals, and readiness for employment. 
  • ChooseWork: Choosework.ssa.gov is Social Security’s Ticket-to-Work website that will help you find TTW providers. Navigate to their “Find Help” page linked here to get started in finding help.

Conclusion

Attaining and maintaining employment as a person with a disability can be overwhelming, but there are resources available to you that can help you through this process.

In this guide we went over general job searching tips and the various state programs that may be available to you. So, to get started today with your job search here are 5 actionable step examples that you can take right now: 

  1. Visit your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation website. Click on this link here for a pre-filled Google link to help you. 
  2. Click here to identify nearby career fairs 
  3. Download our resume template or click on this link for more resume guideline tips 
  4. Begin developing your story. What skills has your personal life experiences provided you? 
  5. Schedule a video or phone call meeting with me where we will help develop a personalized plan to begin your employment journey 

Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of this guide! Let me know down in the comments or through email at info@oternativeperspectives.com on what was most helpful for you or topics that you’d love more guidance in!

Want to learn more about life after high school? Check out our other guides on Accessible Gaming, Higher Education, and Independent Living

Author Nathan Baniqued, CEO and Founder of OTernative Perspectives

About the Author

Nathan Baniqued (he/him)

Nathaniel (Nathan) Baniqued OTD, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist who received his doctoral degree in Occupational Therapy from Washington University in St. Louis, MO in 2023. Originally from O’ahu, HI, Nathan has had 7+ years of experience working with individuals with disabilities in various jobs and settings such as public education, supported employment, and outpatient clinics. The spark that began his desire to work with people with disabilities was after a medical event at 11 years-old when he was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease Stage 3A.

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