I’m In between jobs at the moment, so naturally I’m thinking a lot about job-hunting, interview skills, and resume-building. While I’m fortunate enough to have my next gig already lined up — and it looks like a pretty sweet one — Employment for people with disabilities isn’t usually such a cakewalk.
As an adolescent I sat through a surprising number of interview skills training seminars aimed at blind youth by professionals determined to push past that 20% mark. I also sat through some pretty heated debates among my peers about when was the best time to disclose a disability in the interview process.
I’ve also listened to quieter, more intimate confidences from friends facing down job interviews, worried about their dreams evaporating under the fiery glare of judgmental HR personnel. I’ve heard stories so shocking in their details of blatant discrimination as to be barely credible.
But I do believe these stories. There are too many of them coming from too many sources consistent over too many decades to dismiss.
The simple truth is that most hiring managers assume that blindness, and other disabilities, comes with a level of inherent incompetence that must be overcome. And more often than not, they believe it can’t be. Here are three tips for getting past this hurdle.
First, the requisite internet disclaimer: every disability, industry, company, and individual’s circumstances are different. What worked for me may not work for you, but hopefully it’ll inspire you to develop your own creative solutions. When you do, please write me because I love featuring others’ ideas.
And now for the content.
Thanks to the internet there are no secrets. If you’ve ever disclosed online via social media that you have a disability then a prospective employer can find out about it before your job interview. I’ve been open about my blindness since I’ve had a Facebook account, about 15 years. And yet, not a single employer or hiring manager at any of the several dozen jobs I’ve applied to has ever known in advance.
They could find out, but they probably won’t. Unless it’s a particularly high profile position, it’s not worth their time to do that much snooping. The timing is still largely under your control. And it does matter, even though it shouldn’t.
I personally do not intentionally disclose my disability until I walk into the office of my prospective employer. I carry a cane, or work with a guide dog, so my physical presence is a dead giveaway. If I had one of the many “invisible disabilities’ I don’t think I would disclose until I had an offer letter and needed to negotiate accommodations. Maybe not even until I entered training. But I can’t say for certain since I don’t have that choice.
So instead I say nothing and let them figure it out for themselves. How they react to that discovery tells me a lot about workplace culture, and may even determine whether or not I’ll continue pursuing the position. I’m privileged enough to be able to turn down jobs because of negative impressions, but I recognize that not everyone has this luxury. So, this discovery can help you prepare for the kind of battle you might face, and plan your self-care accordingly.
Refusing to consider or hire someone on basis of disability is illegal according to Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Proving discrimination, unfortunately, is very hard. I use this timing to avoid giving people the chance to discriminate until I’ve had the chance to impress them with my resume, phone interview, LinkedIn, and sparkling personality.
Before I entered the counseling industry most employers said nothing about my disability until the end of the interview. They’d usually get all awkward and embarrassed and say something like “I’m not really sure how to ask this, I don’t’ want to discriminate or anything but…would you need…what kind of accommodations would you need?”
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity commission‘s (EEOC) interpretation of Title I, this is a valid and legal question because, thanks to my cane, the prospective employer knows I have a disability. Read more on their fact sheet for information more specifically relevant to your own situation.
It’s legal,, awkward, and concerning. I worry my answer might label me a burden instead of an asset to the company. But on the other hand, accommodations can often be expensive, bulky, time consuming, or even compromise the integrity of a work process. Answering is a challenge when I can see the issue from both sides.
I start by invoking my expertise. “Well, I’ve been blind for about 30 years so I’m pretty comfortable with adapting to sight-oriented environments,” or something like that reminds the employer that, while they might feel uncertain there’s a whole history of success behind me. Then I draw upon the intel I’ve gathered.
Oh, did I mention that I use job interviews to run personal spy ops? These days interviews often revolve around an exchange of questions. I find openings, or even invitations, to ask about the day-to-day tasks, technology, spaces, and resources of the position so that by the time I get asked about accommodations I already have a plan to answer the pending question.
If the question comes up too early for comfort, though, remember that you don’t have to answer it until you’re ready. “That’s a good question. I’ve got a lot of experience living with myself, as you might imagine, so I’ll be happy to discuss this when I’ve got an idea of what you’ll need from me as an employee.” Your confidence in your past successes implies future successes, and it’s the best way to ease everyone’s concerns.
Once I started seeking counseling jobs, the question of accommodations morphed into one of competency.
“How are you going to be able to see body language?”
Counselors rely on body language, personal hygiene, clothing choices, and eye contact to provide critical details about a client’s state of mind both in the present and the past. One interviewer asked me three separate times to defend my ability to compensate for not being able to see faces , clothes, or hairstyles.
This question is legal. A business has the right to ensure that its employees can deliver on their end of the employment contract. But despite its legality it portrays a cultural assumption of incompetence until proven otherwise applied to minority groups. While it is arguable that the assumption is more or less justified in the case of disability – the justification is in the prefix “dis” – I think there’s a better way.
“My clients report feeling safer and less judged by me because they know I don’t primarily rely on my assessment of their appearance,” I report. “Blindness is an advantage, not a hindrance to my work.”
I wrote This article for a professional publication describing a strengths-based approached to hiring individuals with disabilities. It’s aimed at employers, though I think it’s a good read anyway. The advice below is aimed at job seekers.
Just because someone throws you a ball doesn’t mean you have to play “catch.”
It is frustrating to daily live with every stranger assuming that you’re incompetent at doing everything from tying your own shoes to comprehending an opera. Stuff that annoyance down, but don’t sacrifice your confidence to the cause. If you applied for that job you believe you can do it, and you bring something unique to the table. Now’s your chance to demonstrate that you’re not only not a burden, but an asset they can’t live without.
“Well, most counselors use more than just their eyes in session. So do I. You’d be amazed what kind of information you can pick up on when you don’t over-utilize only one tool.”
I’ve put myself on a level with other counselors, and then introduced the uniquely powerful perspective I have as someone who doesn’t rely on light-processing organs for most of my sensory input. It just might inspire the interviewer to improve her own counseling skills, and I never once validated the core ablist belief in the room.
Rejection hurts in every context. It hurts everyone, and it hurts worse when you’re never given a chance to prove yourself in the first place. Today your favorite blindfluencer asks that you seek out an opportunity for someone to impress you in a new way this week. Finding others’ strengths can sometimes help us recognize our own.