How I Navigated the Return to Work in a Pandemic with an Invisible Disability 

syringe and pills on blue background

I have a Primary Immune Deficiency. You’d have to be a wizard to perfectly navigate a life of illness, work and society with any semblance of “normalcy”. Navigating the workforce as an immunocompromised person was a feat of its own even during the “good times” given the repeated, recurrent infections I contracted. I worked with children for more than 20 years, but when Covid struck I realized that schools were probably not the best place for an immunocompromised asthmatic such as myself and I resigned from my position with the Edmonton school board. After consulting my immunologist and family doctors, we concluded that moving forward, working from home was the only way I was going to be able to protect my health, and my life. Given that the entire world had shifted to working online I figured that working from home would be an easy request to make….

My job search journey began full of hope; I trusted and believed in humanity and I put myself out there in full vulnerability for workplaces to see. As an Occupational Therapist, I have worked with people with disabilities and believe that everyone can be productive. It is my job to provide therapy to build one’s skills and break down barriers so that anyone with any disability can contribute to society. And yet here I found myself face to face with my own barrier, staring into an abyss of questions: 

What do I tell potential employers?

How much do I disclose in an interview?

Should I disclose anything at all? 

This last question was an impossibility, as tempting as it was to not disclose, because although I do have an invisible disability the pandemic had forced my disability to be fully disclosed. I am forced to tell every one of my coworkers, supervisors and bosses exactly what is going on and exactly why I am so special as to be the only one still working from home. Or why I am the one in the interview asking for an accommodation to work from home, and explaining why I cannot do the “virtual” position that I specifically applied for from the company office. 

At first, I thought it would be ok to apply to a regular position and simply ask for an accommodation to work from home. One would think after a rejection or two I would’ve given up, but I am persistent! I had multiple interviews, enough to keep me motivated and interested, and keep my hopes up. 

I tried several approaches. 

Waiting until the end of the interview to disclose my need for accommodations. 


Disclose at the beginning of the interview?

Nope. But at least it was over quick!

Respond to the rejection email from a potential employer with a super long explanation of the legal responsibility to accommodate.

Nope. Definitely not recommended. 

I must’ve gone through 10 interviews! Some hired on the spot, but the offer was rescinded once the request for accommodation was uttered. Sometimes negotiations were attempted, with the bargaining chip being my life and health. Every time, the deal was too steep a risk to pay for the job. Most interviewers did not even bother to reply or inform me of the outcome. 

Employers do have a duty to accommodate; however, without clear guidelines and binding legislation in all provinces, employers are left to interpret what that means. In my experience, that never works out in the best interest of employees with disabilities. Many highly skilled and experienced disabled people are unemployed, underemployed or under-utilized in the labour market.  People are capable of incredible feats if you remove the barriers you have created for them. Break down the access barriers and see people for who they are, for their abilities. 

Here are 5 things organizations can do when a prospective employee has the courage to disclose a disability or directly request an accommodation:

  1. Consider skills, experience and interview performance first. Hire based on these parameters. It is rare that an accommodation cannot be made; with some discussion, solutions can often be found.
  2. Collaborate. Work together with the candidate to find creative solutions together. Find ways to utilize the person’s talents and skills within your workplace. See the candidate for their potential and not the limitations created by external barriers.
  3. Ask questions of the candidate to learn specific steps you can take to accommodate their needs. 
  4. Do not request details of the medical diagnosis. The candidate is free to share should they choose, however the specific accommodation needs should be the focus of hte conversation. 
  5. Consult with your workplace Diversity and Inclusion departments when necessary and speak with outside agencies with experience in Workplace Diversity and Inclusion if needed. Agencies such as WCB, or MT Consulting Group are valuable resources in providing guidance on accommodating individuals with disabilities. 

In the end, I did find a new position, with a company that did not hesitate to meet my need to remain working from home. I am thriving.

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Kimberley Small, Mental Health Occupational Therapist, Edmonton, Alberta.

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