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updated: 9/16/2012 7:20 AM

Work advice: Disability reassurance for returning to work

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Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

Q: A car accident eight years ago left me with physical limitations and post-traumatic stress disorder. I would like to re-enter the workforce, but if I can't handle the load, I will have to go through another process to be deemed disabled again -- and because the disability amount is based on income in past years, I would receive next to nothing to live on. Additionally, an eight-year gap on my resume, plus revealing that I have PTSD and have been receiving disability pay, may not sit well with potential employers. Is there a safe and effective strategy for returning to work without risking it all?

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A: Most of us don't have to think about how a disability could pre-empt or derail a career -- but anyone could end up in your position. And someone in your position could end up anywhere. Just ask Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the Department of Labor, who aided in this response. Because she is blind, she truly understands your concerns about supporting yourself and persuading employers to see what you offer.

Step 1: Get a support system. Do you still have a medical team helping with your recovery? If not, ask your general practitioner for contacts -- including a therapist who can gauge your readiness to make this leap. For emotional support, Martinez says, your local Independent Living Center (www.ilru.org) can connect you with peers with disabilities.

Step 2: Get the real picture about your benefits. Knowing exactly what you're up against is the best defense against paralyzing fear. Your local Social Security Office can provide you with advice and information.

Step 3: Get looking. The Labor Department's Career OneStop (www.servicelocator.org) aggregates information on jobs and training programs, as does the Job Accommodation Network (Askjan.org).

Step 4: Get a foot in the door. Volunteering in your desired field will give you experience and confidence without jeopardizing your financial lifeline. But Martinez points out that you can retain some benefits even while trying out a paying job, up to a certain salary threshold. Find more information at www.ssa.gov/redbook.

Step 5: Get hired. Focus on the skills you offer while being honest about accommodations you need. "Your best defense," Martinez says, "is an offense: Be all that you can be." The Labor Department publication "Youth, Disclosure, and the Workplace: Why, When, What, and How" discusses the decision to disclose (or not) a disability to a potential employer.

Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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