This article is dedicated to Disability Employment Awareness Month, Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and everyone working for progress in disability employment.
Check our BridgingApps for Employment list of apps that can help job seekers find opportunities, practice social skills, and manage their time.
No Mind Is Completely Open
It’s been over thirty years since the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated equal access to employment. Yet the unemployment rate is still twice as high for people with disabilities than people without—and more than 2.5 times as high where disabilities are intellectual.
What makes that gap even harder to bridge is that many employers favor nondisabled applicants without realizing it. Human nature gravitates toward people who are “like us”—or at least like someone we already know and have positive opinions of.
So a more inclusive workforce means less bias—but reaching full inclusiveness means navigating past existing biases. Which is harder when their existence goes unrecognized.
Big change begins with individuals making small changes. Here are some suggestions.
Tips for HR Staff and Interviewers
- Acknowledge that you probably carry unconscious biases of your own: it’s only human. Be willing to learn and change.
- Seek out perspectives from different demographics—starting with people in your own office and/or field.
- To further explore different viewpoints, check advocacy-organization websites for blog and podcast recommendations.
- Always listen to others with an open mind, even when your gut reaction is to feel personally insulted. Never label anyone “unreasonable” or “oversensitive.” Always look for valid points and common ground.
- When interviewing, remember that you can’t fairly (or legally) ask anyone if they have a disability, are caretaker for someone with a disability, or have to take medicine/see a doctor during certain hours. Good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t ask a question to every candidate, don’t ask it to any candidate.
- One question you should ask is whether the applicant can perform essential work tasks “with or without accommodations.” This gives them the lead to share as much or little as they wish. Again, ask everyone you interview, and don’t make assumptions about what anybody will or won’t need.
- Be especially careful when it comes to communications disorders and autism. Fidgeting, sporadic eye contact, or hesitant speech are very easy to misjudge as “antisocial, no team player.”
- For virtual interviews, recognize that not everyone has equal access to (or understanding of) technology. Be ready to accommodate requests for telephone interviews or alternate video platforms.
- Unconscious bias can also come into play with a video interviewee’s background. Do your best to focus on the person, not their living environment or color preferences.
Tips for Job Seekers
- Before you ever fill out an application, know what accommodations you will need in a typical working environment. (Not sure? Consider what accommodations have been helpful in your school, home-computer room, or volunteer work.) Practice communicating these needs clearly and precisely.
- You, as well as your interviewers, have some accommodations to make. You needn’t cut your hair, wear scratchy clothing, or force constant eye contact for the sake of looking more “professional”; but you do want to be reasonably clean and neat, arrive on time, and communicate enthusiasm for the opportunity.
- Don’t get defensive about your disability, but don’t try to hide it either. Focus on mutual understanding from the beginning, to improve chances of a successful long-term working relationship.
- For video interviews, consider your background. If it’s cluttered or overly personal, turn on a virtual background with a neutral look.
- Do be your best natural self. (If you need advice there, ask a coach.) Anyone worth working for will appreciate the real you.
- Actively Addressing Unconscious Bias in Recruiting by Becca Carnahan and Christopher Moore (Harvard Business School, June 16, 2023)
- Job Interview: Disability-Related Questions (University of Wisconsin–Madison)
- Unconscious Bias in Virtual Interviews (Association of American Medical Colleges)