Dealing with disability in the workplace

Posted October 13, 2011, by Louisa Veidelis

If you have a disability or mental illness, entering the workforce can present tricky challenges. You may be confused about your rights and obligations while job hunting and moving through the interview process. Are you legally obligated to disclose your disability to employers? And is your employer required to adjust the role or working spaces to cater for your special needs?

The law

First up, discrimination on the grounds of disability is illegal. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) it is against the law for an employer in Australia to choose not to hire you because of your disability. This protection covers all stages of employment, from the selection/interview process to your training, terms and conditions of employment, promotion and dismissal.

Employers must hire the best person for the job, whether the applicant is disabled or not. However, you must be able to fulfil the ‘inherent requirements’ of the job for this to be applicable.

For example, if you have a back condition and are applying for a job that involves heavy lifting, then you will likely be declined the role. However, if you have something like carpal tunnel syndrome (a condition affecting the wrist) and are applying for a job that involves telephone work, then holding the phone in your hand is not considered an inherent requirement because you could use a headset instead.

Workplace adjustments

If you are the best person for the job, the employer is legally required to make workplace adjustments to help you fulfil your role. Such adjustments may include providing ramps, modifying toilets, providing an enlarged computer screen or offering a support person or mentor.

If these changes are too difficult or raise unreasonable costs for an employer, the employer can claim ‘unjustifiable hardship’ as grounds not to hire you.

To disclose or not to disclose?

So you’ve made it to the interview stage and, if your disability is hidden, you have a decision to make: tell the employer or not?

Legally, you are not required to disclose a disability to an employer, unless the disability may affect your performance at work or your ability to do the job safely and to the safety of your colleagues. Whether you disclose your disability – and if so, when – is completely up to you.

If you will require workplace adjustments for the interview, such as an accessible room, it’s best to let them know before the interview. If you may need workplace adjustments to do the job, you will need to discuss your disability with your employer at the interview. However, you do not need to disclose specific medical information. According to, the minimum you need to discuss is:

  • any adjustments needed to ensure a fair and equitable selection process
  • how the disability may impact on some aspects of the inherent requirements of a job
  • any adjustments that may be needed to complete the inherent requirements of the job.

If the disability will not hinder your ability to do the job, you may choose not to disclose it at all.

For more information about talking about your disability at work, phone the JobAccess advisers on 1800 464 800 (free call).

Mental illness

You are not legally required to disclose a mental illness to an employer, unless it may impact your ability to do the job effectively and safely. If you choose to tell, your employer must keep your disclosure confidential.

Whether you choose to tell your employer or colleagues is up to you. Consider your choice carefully and discuss this with your family and friends.

Some arguments for disclosing include encouraging an honest and open relationship with your manager, the ability to discuss strategies/adjustments with them and showing that occasional poor performance is due to the illness.

You may choose not to disclose your illness if it has no impact on your job and you are concerned about unnecessary curiosity and insensitive questions from others.

Finding a job

A good place to start your job hunt is Centrelink’s Disability Employment Assistance Services. Contact Centrelink to sign up for your assessment by a Job Capacity Assessment Provider. There are also Disabled Employment Services such as NOVA Employment, which is funded by the Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations (DEEWR).

When applying for jobs, ensure that your resume and cover letter are written for each specific job you are applying for, and ask a friend to proofread them. Career FAQs has sample resumes and cover letters for many different industries and resume and cover letter tips to help you put together a winning application.

If you are having trouble finding a job, you could choose to do voluntary work to gain experience, confidence and contacts/referees.

If you need more qualifications for the roles you’re interested in but have mobility restrictions, you could choose to study a course online or by correspondence.

Louisa Veidelis

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