I became disabled and have been out of work for 8 months… I will now need to find a new job. How can I not have this held against me in the job search?
Before I start this post, I should say I’m not a certified vocational rehabilitation specialist. I would recommend seeking one out if you have a question like this one. However, I have worked with many job seekers who had different disabilities and gaps of employment, and I had a minor disability myself for a brief while (I had carpal tunnel syndrome that had to be accommodated with some speech recognition software. Thankfully I’ve since recovered.)
It is definitely possible to return to the nonprofit sector (or any career path) after taking some time off for any particular reason. While it’s true that you will have a gap of time on your resume, people often have such gaps for a variety of reasons: parenting, taking care of ill relatives, personal illness, even taking a trip around the world. Recruiters often have concerns about such “gaps” because they assume the worst: you have been in prison, you were fired from your last job, etc. However, these concerns are becoming less frequent because so many people have gaps like this in their resume just because of the recession. Many highly qualified people now have been unemployed for 6 months or more.
That said, it is worth considering how to address the issue. I would say there are a few different options. If it’s not a lengthy gap, you can just not mention anything about it in the resume, but add a note at the end of the cover letter stating that you are returning to the workforce after having an illness from which you have recovered. If you don’t want to get that specific, you could say you had the opportunity to take some time for yourself, and you are now excited to use your skills for the target organization.
There are no right or wrong answers. I would say too, though, that if you can do as much networking as possible, it will also help alleviate the issue because people will know your story before you even apply for a position. So if you can, join some professional associations, attend some meetings or conferences in your field, start volunteering or joining a board of directors to refresh your resume, and set up a lot of informational interviews. By making connections this way, you can overcome any concerns an employer might have about why you needed time off.
In addition, I would encourage you to use any and all resources that might be available to you, such as any state vocational rehabilitation agencies or nonprofits that work with people who have disabilities, to see if they can help you with making career connections.
One other thing is about how to bring up that you might need an accommodation on the job. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for disabilities, but unfortunately there is still discrimination around this issue at some places. I usually suggest that, if you have an invisible disability, you don’t bring it up until you have a job offer, and then mention the accommodation you will need but make some assurance to them that it is not a huge challenge, that you know how to make it work, that you know what you need, it won’t cost much at all, etc. If you have a visible disability, you might decide to mention something about it before your interview, or you might not. If it’s a good/decent employer they will not discriminate; if not, you might be best off by telling them about the disability in advance and assuring them you are extremely interested in the job and meet or exceed the qualifications, and that the disability isn’t something that will get in your way on the job.
One other point: the federal government has preferences for individuals with disabilities. Check it out here.