This is the start of our guide to help you overcome the obstacle of having a disability as you look for a new job. First we need to understand what having a disability means to your job search.


Bill had been a high-powered financial wholesaler for many years before his heart attack, selling financial products to other financial professionals. When I met him in Boston he had been out for only a year, and looked in perfect health.

He was still young, in his late thirties, and the attack had scared him. So he had stopped drinking, dieted religiously, and exercised regularly. It was now time for him to take those first steps toward getting back to work.

But mentally he wasn't ready yet. "Dan, nobody knows what it means, what it does to your life. I've kept in close touch with my friends, lunch almost every week, and I've tried to explain it to them, but there are no words. The boredom and frustration are bad enough."

"But you also begin to feel strange, as though what you used to do somehow isn't real anymore. The world seems different, and you're not sure you fit in it, the way you did before the disability."

Fred, a brilliant manufacturing engineer, had been out for five years. He had relocated from California to Tennessee to lower his living costs. He had made key contributions in the design and manufacture of products as diverse as tin cans and helicopters. After five years, he was still eager to get back to work, and not just because he needed to earn more money.

"The financial problems are big," I remember him telling me, "and I'm still dealing with back and leg pains. But what really gets me is that I don't have those interesting engineering projects anymore. It was a lot of fun figuring out creative answers to tough design problems, and I guess I was spoiled. It's not easy to fill your day when you're used to doing what you love, then you can't do it anymore."

The story is the same even when the job isn't ideal. Consider the words of Orlando, who had held a job in electronics assembly before his back problems got worse. "I never thought I had an especially good job, but now I realize how much I miss seeing those people every day, joking around, even working extra fast when we had to. That job looks pretty good to me now."

Phil, who had been a janitor before eye problems developed, felt the same way. "Looking back, Dan, I see I enjoyed it in ways I didn't even know, but you could never have convinced me of that back then."

No one but you can know what your disability means to you. Not even another person with a long term disability. Life with a disability is just as individualized and isolated as the healthy life you had before it happened.

How can anyone else truly understand your particular blend of frustrations, anxieties, determination, hopes, fears, and all the subtle shades of emotions, or lack of them, in between?

If you're on long term disability, it's likely that at one time, maybe not that long ago, you were working ..... either for an employer, in your profession, or in your own business. You were healthy enough to do your job, and to some degree you identified with that job.

You may have had the normal degree of discontent, or you may have loved it. Regardless, it gave you a place to go, useful and productive things to do, and at some level, a comfortable feeling that, however important or unimportant you were in the overall scheme of things, you fit in.

You were a functioning part of the world of commerce, a cog in the wheel of the great machine that makes the world hum. You were doing your part, however exalted or humble, in producing the goods and services that we all sell to one another to keep ourselves fed and clothed and housed.

And you felt pretty good about it. Or if not, at least it provided activity and filled your days with challenges, or problems to solve, or interactions with others. You had talents and you were using them, perhaps to create something, sell something, operate something, analyze something, make something happen, help others make something happen, or maybe stop something from happening.

It gave you a place to be and things to do that the rest of the world respected as honest labor, whatever its status. But suddenly, one day, everyone else is going to work ..... and you're not.

Maybe it was because of an accident. Maybe it was an illness or physical problem that gradually, or suddenly, got worse. Maybe it was a stroke. Or maybe it was an operation that didn't go right. Whatever, it left you unable to perform as you always had ..... and as you had always taken for granted.

That first day when you couldn't go to work like everyone else, the world shifted slightly on you. You perceived it from an angle you'd never quite experienced before. Things weren't the same, and it was uncomfortable somehow. On the second day, they shifted a little bit more.

Gradually, with each passing day, you begin to inhabit a different psychological space. You're not addressing the world the way you did for so long. Questions may arise. Who am I, if I'm no longer the person who does such-and-such each day? Am I still lovable if I'm no longer out there achieving and producing? Just what is the significance of my life?

Concerns may start to surface. Will I ever be productive again? Can I be happy doing something different from what I've always done? How far am I falling behind? How will my family get by? Will I become a burden, or worse yet, a bore?

Depending on your answers to those kinds of questions, you may gradually regain peace of mind and a healthy level of self-esteem ..... or things may go the other way.

By the time six months pass, you might be in any number of emotional places. For some, they fully expect to be "back in the swing of things" in some specified time period, and they keep themselves occupied by staying up-to-date in their chosen field. No problem there.

For others, however, it might be a little more complicated. Maybe they realize they can't go back to doing what they used to do any time soon ..... or ever. Maybe they realize their employer doesn't want them back or can't make room for them.

Or they can't go back to running their business as they had. Maybe they develop a real sense of isolation, not knowing anyone else in their set of particularly difficult circumstances.

Financial problems often develop, even with the cushion of benefit payments from their disability income policy. Marital and other relationships are tested, and sometimes it turns out to be a destructive test. Friends may not know how to respond properly, and slowly slip away. Wives or husbands may not be able to handle the pressure, and there can be a lot of pressure. Problems here.

If there's pain - really bad pain - it can mean very big problems. Your whole world becomes focused on how to live with that pain. The energy and concentration it takes can be all-consuming, leaving little else of life to be experienced, none of it savored.

And if you need to take drugs to help you cope with it, they can rob you of that clear conscious focus on life you'd always assumed would be yours, rob you of your energy, your stamina, your zest for life.

So depending upon your circumstances, your reactions, and your individual makeup, a disability can mean just a temporary setback, or it can bring your whole world crashing down around you, tearing apart the whole fabric of your existence, erasing all the familiar reference points by which you judged your daily experience, and distorting all the standards and many of the values you relied on to assign meaning to your life.

And only you can truly know what it means to you. So if someone tells you they understand your situation because they've worked with hundreds of others in similar circumstances, or because they've "gone through it themselves" at some point, you might choose to forgive their presumptuousness, and appreciate that they mean well.

But you know they don't really know. They don't really understand. You know what though? In terms of whether their understanding helps you get out of this place you're in, to some other place you'd rather be, you might ask the question, what difference does it make? You have your options regardless.