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Better Interviews for People with Disabilities

People with disabilities surveyed by the National Center for Disability Services said that they were frustrated by the interviewing process. Here's how HR can make interviewing more successful--for everyone.

August 7, 2002

 People with severe disabilities who use “assistive technology” at work would like the opportunity to candidly respond to questions that potential employers have about their needs. A recent study conducted by the Research and Evaluation Center at the National Center for Disability Services examined the critical factors and barriers affecting this group of workers. Forty disabled people from across the country employed in a wide range of occupations were interviewed about their perspectives on job-seeking, working, and using AT in the workplace.

One of the issues raised by study participants was frustration with the job-search process, including the difficulty of getting an interview and then having a successful interview experience. Many said that they struggled with the decision to disclose information about a disability or the accommodations they would require. Although there was no consensus about when and how to address this issue, many felt it was a determining factor in the outcome of the job search and interview.

Many thought that if employers had asked specific questions, they would have had a more successful experience in the interview and at work. For the most part, they felt that potential employers were concerned about how the disability would affect their work performance. But the interviewer would never directly address this issue and, therefore, made decisions without all the facts. The applicants said that an open discussion about obvious issues would have allowed for clarification of concerns.

Most expressed apprehension that they wouldn’t be given an opportunity to respond to an employer’s concerns about how they would do the job.

What study participants wanted to be asked
The following are examples of the kinds of questions that survey respondents would like to be asked during job interviews:

• Is there any kind of setting or special equipment that will facilitate the interview process for you?

• Is there any specific technology that you currently use or have used in previous jobs that assisted you in your work performance?

• Other than technology, what other kinds of supports did you have in previous jobs? If none, are there any that would benefit you?

• Provide an example(s) of how you use technology to carry out your job duties. (Respondents often said they would like the opportunity to describe or demonstrate how they perform specific job functions/duties.)

• Is there any technology that you don’t currently have that would be helpful in performing the duties of this position?

• In the past, did you experience any problems between your technology and the company’s (former employer’s) information systems?

• Do you foresee your technology needs changing in the near future? Why and how?

• Discuss a barrier or obstacle, if any, that you have encountered in any of your previous jobs. How was that addressed? Do you anticipate any transportation or scheduling issues with the work schedule expected of this position?

(For a discussion of which questions can by asked by HR under the ADA, please see the sidebar, “Can HR Legally Ask the Questions That Applicants with Disabilities Want to Be Asked?”)

Openness would help the hiring process
Survey participants said that an open discussion of concerns by both parties would benefit the company, and would make the interviewing and hiring process easier or at least successful for them. In one case, a woman had the required qualifications for a job, but when she arrived at the interview, she was asked to take a typing test. Since she had not brought her adapted keyboard, she failed. She could have done well if she had known about the test requirement in advance.

“I failed the typing test miserably. I didn’t know I would have to take a typing test. If I had, I would have brought my keyboard.” With the adapted keyboard, this woman could type 40 words per minute and would have passed the test.

In another case, a law school graduate with very good credentials, including involvement in the school’s law review, was unable to obtain a job in the legal field. After some time, he gave up the search and accepted a job with an IT consulting firm. He felt that part of his inability to find employment in law was attributable to his disability. “Of course, you can never be certain,” he said.

He discussed how firms would be impressed and excited about his résumé. This was clear when they called to schedule the initial interview. At the interview, however, “suddenly nobody wanted to talk anymore.” In one interview, he was asked what questions he would ask himself if he were the interviewer. He opened the door to discussion by answering that he would be interested in knowing if his disability would be an issue. The response he received made it clear that his disability was something the interviewer did not want to discuss. The man regretted that potential employers would not discuss their fears and concerns with him. If they had, he would have addressed the issues, and that might have made the difference.

Frustrations in a lengthy job search
Another person in the study looked for employment for a year before he received a job offer. He speculates that a major part of the delay had to do with his disability, quadriplegia. He believes he was qualified for all the positions he applied for. His credentials include an MBA degree with a specialization in information technology, and a certification on Web and IT applications. Although he was on a dedicated job search and had dozens of interviews, he was unable to find employment for a year.

While job searching, he didn’t disclose his disability during initial contacts so that he could get an interview and have an opportunity to present himself in person. This decision came about after he had called a few companies before an interview to find out if the facility was wheelchair-accessible. This led to callbacks postponing the interview, or saying that the position was filled. He believes that in most cases, the discriminatory behavior was not a conscious choice. That’s why he looked at the interview as an opportunity to dismiss any questions about his ability to do the job.

Currently, he is an Internet manager for an IT training company and is very content: “The company I work for is really open-minded. They see the value that I bring to the company.” This company was a great match for him from the beginning. He was able to discuss his accommodation and scheduling needs during the interview process, as well as inform the company about the type of mouse, desk, and other supports he would require. A flexible schedule was also important. “Although I can work full-time, probably even more than full-time at full productivity, I can’t be physically in the office until 10 in the morning.”

The candid discussion enabled both parties to know what to expect and what issues could arise in the future. He has the option of telecommuting when necessary and has remote access to the local network at the office. He makes it clear that this accommodation does not affect his productivity; he completes some work in the morning before he gets to the office and usually works at night from home. He thinks that his employer’s attitude and having the opportunity to openly discuss his accommodation issues during the interviews were critical factors in his employment success.

 A positive job experience begins with the interview
The survey participants who had a positive employment experience attribute their success to open communication with the employer from the beginning. Many of those interviewed believed that the discriminatory behavior they experienced was unintentional and often guided by misconceptions and unfounded fears.

    If they were given the opportunity of an interview, they welcomed it because it permitted them to introduce themselves, answer questions, and discuss their abilities and qualifications. Many participants think that the Americans with Disabilities Act is a double-edged sword because it undermines what it’s intended to do by creating unnecessary fears in employers about potential litigation. Some respondents expressed concern that legal accountability created a focus on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

Workforce, August 2002, pp. 38-42 -- Subscribe Now!