What to tell potential employers about our health when we are out there on the mean streets, looking for work. Tough subject. When Calvin Coolidge was riding the economic boom of the 1920, he uttered what probably was his only memorable line, "The business of America is business." The citizenry did not call him Silent Cal for nothing, but he was right, and many of us want in.
Is silence how the sick and disabled should make that happen as we meet with potential employers? I was in graduate school at Columbia when I lost vision in my second eye. I was advised to tell the truth. I headed downtown to meet with an NBC executive who had promised a job after graduation. I told the hard truth and watched the light in his eyes flicker and die.
When I was then a candidate for a producer job with Walter Cronkite, I told myself, screw the truth. I lied, left health questions unanswered and faked my way through the company physical. I got the job with the most trusted man in America, but I was not proud of how I got hired.
The irony is that Cal accidentally hit a raw nerve with boomers, who often over-identify with what we do for a living. We are what we do. I stepped into that trap years ago. But it is not just ego and pride at stake here. It is making a life work and supporting a family. Most of us do not work to feed our egos but because we have to.
We are damaged goods in the eyes of many bosses. They stupidly assume we will be unproductive, unreliable workers. Anyone in the workforce who carries around a chronic illness knows we feel the need to constantly prove ourselves and do good work. In hard economic times, employers are less likely to take chances. We may know hiring us is not taking a chance, but we cannot save individuals from their own ignorance. And there is no appeal.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability. Case closed. Well, not exactly. When you are not hired, you will never know why. If you are obviously disabled, in a wheelchair, on a walker or standing with a seeing eye dog, there is no hiding the truth. Going to court to prove your qualifications is expensive and probably a long shot, anyway.
If you are not wearing your disability on your sleeve, say nothing. I learned that the hard way. You owe The Man nothing but your best work. Years after I left CBS News, Cronkite's executive producer, long retired, told me I had done the right thing. "If I knew you had MS, I would not have hired you."
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