Job seeking when you have a disability

Anthony Balderrama, CareerBuilder Writer

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Thirteen years ago, James Medley was running an electronic store when he was beaten during a robbery. Because he suffered permanent injuries that made standing for long periods of time difficult, Medley decided to move to a position in marketing that was less physically taxing.

"In the meantime my disabilities have made it harder to walk, stand or even sit in the same position for more than a few hours," says Medley, who today writes for ILiveWithADisability.com, an online resource people with disabilities. "As a result, I've put on a lot of weight and I move slower. When I have my first interview over the phone, the interviewer typically sounds relatively positive. But when I meet them in person I can feel a difference in their demeanor."

Medley points out that, with 40 years of sales and marketing experience, he feels like hiring managers see a worker with a disability who isn't as young as other job seekers.

"I know there are regulations against these types of discrimination, just like there are regulations against physical assault," Medley says. "At least when you've been assaulted you have cuts and bruises to prove that it happened.  Discrimination is a lot harder to prove."

Although Medley says he often feels alone in his experience, he isn't. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. has 26.5 million workers age 16 and over who have disabilities. While these job seekers and workers are no small portion of the workforce, their unique job-search experiences are often overlooked.

The biggest obstacles
All job seekers are tasked with proving their skills and talent to employers, but job seekers with disabilities have to work harder to win over the employer.

"Probably the number one misconception employers have about hiring people with disabilities is that the job candidate will be incompetent," says Sarah Laugtug, executive editor for ILiveWithADisability.com. "This is a common concern employers have in hiring any employee, but seems more common in interviewing individuals with physical disabilities."

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act legally protects job seekers from being discriminated against for real or perceived disabilities, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. According to Laugtug, job seekers sometimes divulge too much personal information and hinder their own job searches without even realizing.

"Including disability-related information on a job application or résumé, talking about [a] disability or health complications in interviews, and inadequately explaining reasons for absenteeism can be detrimental to the hiring of the employee, raising red flags for employers," Laugtug says.

That's not to say workers should be afraid to discuss their disability openly. Laugtug points out that many job seekers, like Medley, do notice a marked shift in an employer's behavior when they are surprised to see an applicant with a disability. Signaling the employer beforehand can make the experience less uncomfortable for the job seeker and less surprising for the employer.

"Some people have used humor. [A] person with a sight impairment might state that they are a hit with people at work because they all want to interact with the dog. A different approach might be stating, 'I want to ensure no one is allergic to dogs, because I will be arriving with a guidance dog.'" Laugtug suggest. "This is a great approach, because it helps prepare the employer and the meeting will run more smoothly."

In other situations, the conversation could come even earlier.

"Job applicants need to make sure their needs are met so they present the best to the employer and land the job," Laugtug reminds job seekers. If you need a sign language interpreter or a paper application rather than an online, timed one, let the HR department know.

For workers with invisible disabilities, or disabilities that aren't readily visible to employers, the conversation might take place later in the process. Laugtug points out that a worker with diabetes might need to alert the employer that he needs frequent breaks rather than taking unapproved breaks in the middle of a meeting or training session.

Proving your worth
If employers are concerned that job seekers with disabilities won't be able to perform their job duties, two things need to happen. First, employers need to overcome their own preconceived notions and any assumptions they have about workers with disabilities.

Employers simply need some education, says Denise Majka, vice president of day services for Lifespire, a charity that helps individuals with developmental disabilities participate in their community and gain independence.

"Employers need to be educated on not only the disability, but need to develop a true understanding of the nature of working with an individual with a disability," Majka explains. "The individual's best course of action is the enlist assistance from a job placement or supported employment program who can assist them navigate the world of work."

In addition to helping you find employers, you might use an agency like Lifespire for the ability to provide an employer with the educational resources they lack. Majka

"The staff does spend time explaining that the individual may need additional training in order to learn the job duties.  This training is handled by trained staff from the agency.  Agency staff is pretty successful in convincing the employer to give the individual an opportunity," Majka says.

But the other, perhaps more important change that needs to be made is with the job seeker.

"People with disabilities hear societal messages telling them they aren't good enough, they will always be dependent, and won't succeed in careers because of their disabilities," Laugtug cautions. "Self-esteem is a vital piece of marketing one's self to an employer in résumés, applications, interviews and on the job. By becoming more confident, job seekers can feel comfortable applying for jobs in which they have the skills and passion."

Obviously, the ultimate goal is to have a workplace where employers don't have hesitations just because of a disability. The evolution is happening, and the workplace is more accommodating today than it was in previous generations, but it's far from perfect. Employers dismiss applicants for many reasons, ranging from typos to wrinkled clothes to self-doubt. If you act like you know you can do the job, then you'll preemptively strike down any doubts an employer has.

Laugtug boils the job search down to a simple formula: "Successful employment for people with disabilities occurs through planning, preparation, confidence, self-awareness, and sharing their strengths with employers."

Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Last Updated: 12/07/2011 - 6:11 PM


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