How Job Seekers With Disabilities Can Beat Discrimination

Job Search

It’s no secret the deck is already stacked against people with disabilities. Tasks most take for granted — things as simple as climbing the stairs to get to our favorite restaurant, for example, or taking advantage of public transportation — are orders of magnitude more difficult for those of us who, through no fault of our own, have trouble getting around.

What might be surprising, though, is the amount of bias and outright discrimination individuals with disabilities have to contend with, even in the year 2015, and even in an ostensibly enlightened country such as ours. To be more specific, finding a job is considerably more difficult for disabled persons.

The good news is, there are a few things you can do to help overcome discrimination as a job seeker with a disability. Before we get to that, though, let’s take a look at just how widespread the problem really is.

New Studies Reveal a Surprising Amount of Bias

The optimist in all of us would prefer to believe humankind has left behind at least a couple of its innate biases during our many thousands of years of development. Unfortunately, too many of them persist today, as a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research recently confirmed.

The study surprised even the researchers who carried it out, because it revealed a surprising amount of bias against people with disabilities. To conduct the study, researchers from Syracuse and Rutgers universities sent out 6,000 fake cover letters and résumés in answer to job postings in the accounting industry.

The results were discouraging. The fictional applicants who disclosed their disability beforehand received 26 percent less interest from employers than those without disabilities.

Said Lisa Schur, a political scientist who took part in the study: “I don’t think we were astounded by the fact that there were fewer expressions of interest … But I don’t think we were expecting it to be as large.”

Now that we understand the problem a little better, let’s take a look at what you can do about it.

Action 1: Know Your Rights

First and most importantly, it’s vital you go into the application process with a thorough understanding of your rights.

Simply put, there are questions an interviewer is not legally able to ask you. To begin with, employers may not require, nor even ask for, a physical examination before they extend an offer of employment. In the pre-offer stage, interviewers may also not ask about the nature or the severity of your disability.

After an offer has been made, interviewers do have the right to ask medical questions, even if they’re not directly related to the job in question — provided these questions are asked of everybody who applies. They’re also within their right to ask, again, after an offer has been made, questions of a more specific nature about your disability, up to and including a demonstration of how you’d perform your job.

For a more comprehensive explanation of your rights, take a look at the EEOC’s enforcement guidance sheet here.

Action 2: Positively Address Your Disability in the Interview

While we discussed above that your prospective employer may not ask you about your disability in the interview stage, that’s not to say you can’t address your disability voluntarily and do so in a way that’s positive and demonstrates your unique capabilities.

One great example discussed here is a man without arms who sat for a job interview and asked if it would be appropriate to take notes. Without the use of his arms, the man demonstrated how he was able to adjust by taking notes with his feet.

The point here is less about the man’s ability to take notes and more about his decision to do so. With a single simple gesture, the man managed to demonstrate two things: 1) That he knew how to solve problems, and 2) That he wasn’t ashamed of his lack of arms. That kind of confidence is hard-won, but it can go a long way.

Action 3: Focus on Your Abilities

Your job as an applicant is to demonstrate you’re capable of performing the task at hand, and there are a number of ways you can do that. Think of it as a kind of personal branding, where your job is to showcase your best qualities and leverage even your struggles as a kind of strength.

First, don’t be afraid to ask for an accommodation. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers and housing providers are required by law to make “reasonable” accommodations for employees with specific needs. It might sound like a difficult thing to do, but disclosing your need for such an accommodation can actually help you demonstrate your capability — that is, if you know how to frame it in a positive way.

For example: You may require a ramp to enter and exit the building, or to travel from one part of the job site to the other. If that’s the case, you can frame it like this: “As long as I can roll my wheelchair up the ramp, I’ll never miss a meeting.”

You get the idea. Even if you require something that feels like special treatment, there are ways to discuss your disability and your requirements in a way that demonstrates how you’ll perform your new job — not just that you’ll be able.

Action 4: Know Where to Turn for Help

Finally, it’s important to remember you’re far from the first disabled person to seek a new job. And because you’re not alone in that search, there are numerous resources available to help you on your way.

There are currently 2,500 American Job Centers scattered throughout the United States. You can use the centers’ search tool to help you find one in your area. Although the available resources may vary somewhat by location, you can count on access to at least some of the following:

  • Résumé writing tools and/or workshops
  • Job training services
  • Career counseling
  • Interview practice
  • Referrals to other specialized agencies

You can also make use of the US Department of Labor’s resources for job hunters with disabilities, which include a more comprehensive breakdown of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has been helping people find rewarding employment for more than a quarter-century.

Above all, remember not to be discouraged. Discrimination is, sadly, a part of modern life that we all need to contend with in different ways and to various degrees. Among our responsibilities in life is to handle bias and ignorance with grace and forgiveness, and to never give up the dream of something better.