Being nervous about a job interview is normal for everyone. For a person with a disability, there’s a lot more than the interview itself to be nervous about.
Immediately, you start thinking about how to address your disability, or if you should at all. Then there are all the practical things, like how to enter the building when you arrive or if it’s accessible for someone using a wheelchair. You think about the road to get there, whether or not they have handicap facilities, if you will be the only one, or even the first one.
Then there’s the added worry of hoping they don’t feel sorry for you the minute you roll in. Or even worse—that they won’t take you seriously. Imagine having to consider all of this before you have even entered the building.
This is my reality, but it hasn’t always been so. As a teenager, I won the Dutch national youth championship in relay swimming twice. My goal was to compete in the Olympics, and I trained hard to do so. Little did I know that from one day to the next my legs would give out and that I would be paralyzed from my hips to my toes.
I went from being vibrant, healthy and sporty to sitting in a wheelchair, suffering from extreme pain. Needless to say, this was a major life change. One that has followed me into my professional career.
I think it is important to tell this story, to bring more awareness to the topic of disability in the world of business, and to challenge others to see people for who they truly are and what they have to offer—instead of how they look.
What businesses gain from hiring individuals with disabilities
There are several ways in which people with disabilities can enrich companies. For example, I have learned from talking to other people with disabilities that we tend to be creative problem solvers. When your body functions differently than everyone else’s, inevitably you suffer setbacks and are forced to overcome major problems.
In order to find solutions to these problems, more often than not you have to think creatively. What’s more, this kind of mindset isn’t for the fainthearted and requires resilience and a strong sense of motivation.
These attributes are invaluable in companies that are fast paced and regularly undergo organizational change. Not only are creative problem solving, motivation, and resilience beneficial to companies on a general level, but on an individual one, as well. Especially in environments where collaboration and teamwork is common.
If people with disabilities by and large possess these skills, then it stands to reason that recruiters should actively try to attract and hire them. In order to do so, there are a few very important things to bear in mind.
How TA teams can make jobs more accessible
As a result of Covid-19, companies across the world have become better acquainted with remote work. Many have even switched to remote-first policies. That’s a huge step in the right direction for making work more accessible for people with disabilities.
When you have a disability, it’s not uncommon to struggle with extreme fatigue, concentration problems, and other difficulties throughout the day. This can have a big effect on the way you work.
For example, you might be highly productive for a couple of hours and then need to rest before resuming. Also, traveling to the office alone can be exhausting; therefore, having the option to work from home is sometimes necessary in order to be productive and deliver the best results.
Talent teams serious about making their recruiting efforts as equitable as possible should bear this in mind. For individuals with disabilities, knowing that a company supports remote work—and to what extent—can make a huge difference when deciding upon an employer. Make all of this information clear in job descriptions, on your career page, and through your employer branding.
However, if remote work isn’t something your company is flexible about, be up front about what your company has done to make its physical workspace easily accessible to people with disabilities. You should also strongly consider having flexible working hours, as the commute to and from work can be more involved for people with disabilities.
Finally, recruiters should try to partner with local organizations that help people with disabilities find employment. Examples of such organizations in the USA are AbilityOne and SourceAmerica. In the Netherlands, my home country, there are organizations like Emma at work and Onbeperkt aan de slag. Groups like these can be a wonderful resource for recruiters.
Chances are most hiring teams won’t be aware of all of the difficulties people with disabilities face when looking for work. Gaps in knowledge are normal; they can be bridged by utilizing the right resources. In fact, they should be, considering that it could mean the difference between a great candidate getting the job or not.
Why inclusion matters as much as diversity
Hiring individuals with disabilities through diversity recruiting is only half the battle. The other is ensuring they feel included in the workplace and company culture.
More and more organizations are starting to adopt diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. That’s great. But it is extremely important that these organizations take steps to ensure these initiatives are both diverse and inclusive. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Unfortunately, oftentimes that’s not the case.
In order for D&I initiatives to be truly successful, they can’t entirely be instituted from the top down. The people they’re meant to champion must also be consulted and included in the planning process. For example, individuals with disabilities have a much better understanding of what’s lacking or problematic for them in the workplace than those that do not.
Most people probably wouldn’t stop to consider things like whether or not there are easily accessible handicap restrooms, elevators, wide doors, ground floor entrances, and so forth. These may seem like simple details, but often it’s the simple details that are overlooked the most.
This doesn’t just apply to individuals with disabilities, though. The same logic applies for everyone from diverse backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, cultures, sexual orientations, and more. You can’t assume that you—or your company—knows what’s best for someone else better than they do.
Furthermore, it’s important for individuals with disabilities to feel as though they were hired based on their skills, character, and unique life experiences. Not simply to satisfy hiring quotas or improve diversity ratings. Companies should give employees with disabilities the opportunity to discuss the ways in which their disability has shaped them positively, and how it can bring added value to the organization, rather than focusing on the drawbacks.
One way to truly bring these ideas front and center is to go a step further and ensure diversity in management, especially at the executive level. Not only is this empowering for individuals, it’s also a powerful way to educate everyone in the company and to demonstrate that people with disabilities can excel in the workplace—just like everyone else.
Finally, even though initiatives like the ones mentioned above don’t typically fall under the responsibilities of TA teams, they’re still very relevant to them. The more diverse a company becomes, the more recruiters (and others) will come to understand candidates—who eventually become valuable employees—from a variety of backgrounds. Not to mention their needs, wants, fears, frustrations, and everything in between. An informed recruiter is an empowered recruiter.
Personally, the following have helped boost my self confidence the most: acceptance of my disability and being part of a team where people appreciate me for what I have to offer. This is something we all want to feel within our jobs. To be able to use your strengths at work and bring your life experiences at the same time is very rewarding. As a person with a disability, not only does this help one to feel included in the workplace, but in society in general. It has empowered me, and I hope that everyone with a disability can have the same fortune.