I am paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury from an automobile accident. I am now confined to a wheelchair. Before the accident, I worked as a bookkeeper, but I lost my job when I was in the hospital. I am ready to get on with my life and I would like to return to work. I am a little sensitive about my appearance, and I am also worried about what I will tell prospective employers when they ask me why I am in a wheelchair. Do you have any suggestions? –Melanie in Georgia
Dear Melanie,

It is ILLEGAL for employers to ask you any questions directly about your disability such as “ Are you paralyzed?” or indirectly to elicit information about your disability such as “Why are you in a wheelchair?’The American with Disabilities Act of 1990 under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created to protect you from discrimination because of a disability much the same as it protects persons from answering questions about their age, race, religion or sexual preference.

Educated employers will ONLY ask you about your ability to do the essential functions of the job. Questions such as ‘Can you operate a computer or Can you write checks” would appear to be perfectly legitimate types of questions for a bookkeeper as it is essential that most bookkeepers be able to do this in their jobs.It would probably not be acceptable for a prospective employer to ask you questions such as ‘Can you walk?’ unless walking for some reason (I can’t imagine what in a bookkeeping position) is an essential part of the job.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that discrimination laws take many years and individual efforts before there is true integration and it is quite possible that, even though it is not legal, you may be asked questions pertaining to your disability in an interview. My advice is to educate employers gently by ‘Addressing the Concern’ not the question.

If an employer ask you why you are in a wheelchair, you may want to respond with answers such as ‘Is that a problem on the job?’ or their concern that it may interfere with your work – ‘Hasn’t kept me from doing bookkeeping, yet.’ Redirect the interview back to job-related questions and be ready to talk about your professional abilities.By the way, are you up-to-date with current computer bookkeeping programs? It is best if you are as current as you can be on the programs you know and consider some schooling to learn new software.

In regards to feeling sensitive about your appearance, this is a common concern of job hunters with or without a disability. Although you may feel self-conscious initially, either find a work from home position or my suggestion is ‘Fake it until you make it.’ Take a little extra care with your grooming and choose nice clothes. Look your best and you will certainly feel better and make a better impression.  Remember, companies need good solid, honest employees like you.