Q&A: I have a job applicant who has notified me they have a disability. What should I do now?
This article was developed as part of
The Accessibility Switchboard Project
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
January 2017, Version 1.0.
Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0
I have a job applicant who has notified me they have a disability. What should I do now?
Focus on abilities first. Address accessibility accommodations after the hiring decision is made.
In-Depth answer: I have a job applicant who has notified me they have a disability. What should I do now?
There’s a reason for the footnote
Human Resources (HR) makes sure that something like the following is at the foot of every one of your company’s job postings:
ACME Corporation is an equal opportunity employer. We will not discriminate in employment, recruitment, and other conditions of employment against any job applicant on the bases of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or disability.
But what about the practicalities of dealing with the disability question when it comes up in the application and interview process?
“Organizations seldom if ever fail in their intent, executive direction or strategy formulation. They fail in the execution and implementation of their initiatives. Nowhere is that more true than in the accommodation of diversity.”
—Alan Weiss, 1994, Rejoicing in Diversity, p.26
This warning is grounded in the collective experiences of many who have seen good intentions stumble and falter when it comes to hiring people who have different backgrounds to those who predominate the current workforce. For the organization as a whole, there are compelling reasons why the “intent”, “executive direction” and “strategy” is to create an inclusive work environment, as embodied in the footnote. However, the goals behind the footnote’s existence don’t necessarily tally with the facts and figures of attainment of those goals. As a society, and as individuals in society, we still have issues, and they remain as prevalent and pertinent today, as they were decades ago:
One reason we have not made more progress is we are all consciously and unconsciously holding on to our psychological territory and our inalienable right to have things remain the same.”
—Helen Turnbull, 2016, The Illusion of Inclusion, p.16
HR will be the first to assert that the footnote must be accompanied by (1) training of employees on diversity; and (2) monitoring of progress. In addition to the resources cited above, there is a great deal of information, and a great number of training resources around the issue of diversity in organizations. There is a key difference though, between disability and other categories under the ‘diversity’ heading…
What makes disability an outlier?
Specifically, the fact that technology has to be designed and implemented in such a way that it is usable by people with disabilities. (For more on this issue and available solutions for technology access, see our related Q&A article Why would I want to address accessibility in my organization?) We consider disability differently to other diversity categories because there are two pertinent questions that may come to the mind of the candidate’s interviewer(s):
- Is the technology that we use in our office inherently accessible to someone with this type of disability?
- If our technology isn’t inherently accessible, is there an interface solution that allows this candidate to interact with our technology?
These questions don’t come up when we’re considering a candidate who has a different gender, religion, etc. So disability by its nature raises these additional technology questions that must be answered. The answer to the first question is something that the hiring personnel need to know; and the answer to the second question is something that the candidate is best positioned to answer. Our advice though, is to address these questions only after considering the candidates abilities first.
Note: The information in this article is pertinent to hiring, promotion, and retention of people with disabilities. For simplicity, we use examples based on hiring, but the strategies and issues also apply to those other areas.
Think for a moment of the range of human functional abilities. Seeing, hearing, speaking, physically manipulating, moving, remembering, abstracting, etc. A disability commonly affects only one of these functions, and the affect is on a scale, from mild impairment, to severe impairment (e.g., mild hearing loss to complete hearing loss). One disability typically has no affect on the many other abilities. This thought is part of a key concept, and that is “don’t define us by our disabilities; define us by our abilities”.
More important and more pertinent to the same key concept is the skills and abilities that are pertinent to the job: You’re looking for an accountant. The candidate has a degree in accounting. You’re looking for someone with good people skills. The candidate has a charming manner and converses easily. You’re looking for someone who can work in Drupal. The candidate has three years of experience working on projects using Drupal.
Forget the disability. Concentrate on the abilities.
Guidance on interviewing job candidates tells us to stay away from the areas of difference and instead focus on the areas of competency to perform the tasks of the job.
Informally ask a number of people with disabilities about their experiences applying for jobs and they will tell you that ‘abilities first’ is seldom the case. People naturally focus on the difference:
“Good to meet you Miss Smith. Oh, you’re blind, I didn’t realize from your resume. How on earth did you find our building?”
Training tells us to avoid the same sort of thing when we’re considering candidates. We’re strongly advised that it is inappropriate to say:
“Good to meet you Miss Smith. Oh, you’re Asian, I didn’t realize…”
But, disabilities are often overt only when we meet face to face, and it’s easy to make the mental slip and focus on the difference (you have a cane, you have an assistance dog, you use a wheelchair, etc.). Focusing on the difference takes you away from the task of assessing the candidate based on their skills and abilities, which are going to be a lot longer a list than the list of their disabilities.
The question of the technology we use
For some issues, the questions might have a straightforward answer. The candidate uses a wheelchair. Do we have wheelchair accessible restrooms in this building? Check. Do we have accessible elevators and a level route from the front door? Check.
For some issues, the answers to questions might not be so overt, but still require that the person doing the hiring knows the answers to:
- Is our intranet conformant with web accessibility requirements?
- Do our software platforms pass accessibility checks?
- Do we send out company wide emails and memos with accessible formatting?
- Is there an alternative to the fingerprint door scanner for people who don’t have hands?
For any company that asserts that it “will not discriminate… on the basis of… disability”, these are the sorts of questions that should be addressed regardless of, and prior to the question of whether individual candidates with disabilities are applying for jobs at the company. Which came first? The accessible technology in the company, or the employees who couldn’t do their jobs because the technology in the company was never addressed for accessibility? If the fingerprint scanner is the only way in, then war veteran Fred who has no hands but is perfectly capable of typing is going to be passed over.
(For understanding where your company is now, and the path to including accessibility throughout your organization, we have produced additional guidance: A Roadmap for Organizational Accessibility for Large ICT Vendors, and How do I ensure my products work for people with disabilities?)
Ignoring the accessibility of things like the intranet, software, and door security systems almost guarantees that the person doing the interviewing will lean towards overlooking candidates (i.e., discriminating) on the basis of their disability. Having the basic levels of accessibility of the company’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) addressed provides an entry capability for a vast number of people with disabilities. Even so, it isn’t expected that all possible scenarios and all disability issues are going to be covered by such initiatives. There will often be the need for additional technology considerations at the individual candidate level…
The question of interface solutions used by the candidate
Not all technology can be made accessible ‘out of the box’. There is a need for assistive technologies (AT)—devices and software that are used by people with disabilities—to interact with mainstream technologies. Examples include:
- Talking software that allows people with sight limitations to read information on computer screens;
- Larger keyboards allowing use by people with physical dexterity limitations;
- Software to allow typing using only one side of the keyboard, for people who have only one usable hand;
- Personal magnifiers, to allow people with low vision to read projected presentation materials from across the room.
The list of available AT is very long. There are databases of AT containing thousands and thousands of physical and software products.
You don’t need to know what they are.
Or more specifically, you don’t have to sit on your side of the table and wonder quietly “How on earth would she use our technology platforms? How would she even log in?”
Instead, it’s acceptable just ask the candidate. “Can you tell me what sort of assistive technology you use, if any? We’ll need to make sure that make provisions for that if you are the successful candidate”. And then let them tell you. They’ve been the ones using their AT for a while, and they have the best knowledge of what that entails, and how the AT can be used in accommodating job tasks. This exchange of information can help make the candidate feel comfortable that you have recognized and will address any accommodation needs, and, importantly, that this aspect is a separate consideration from your hiring decision.
Address technology accommodations after the offer of employment is made
Large organizations typically have an accommodations office, that provides employees with ergonomic keyboards, standing desks, and AT when needed. The accommodations office usually doesn’t take a guess at what the employee needs; they ask them what has worked in the past, whether they already own devices that work well for them that might be interoperable with the company’s technology environment, and/or what new technologies are most likely to work for them in this specific work environment.
Costs of AT accommodations are typically handled by the accommodations office as part of a central budget for the company. Compromise in the choice of AT solution is sometimes needed, but generally speaking accommodations are inexpensive and not difficult to implement. (The job of the accommodations office is to make the transition into the workplace as smooth as possible, absolving the individual department personnel of the need to learn about and install assistive technologies).
Considerations for installation of software-based assistive technologies
There are practical questions around the installation of software based AT. Typically, policies do not permit the installation of individualized software on company machines, because of concerns over IT security. If accessibility has previously been tackled as an organization-wide initiative, then the likelihood is that when the IT department is approached with a new AT software request, they will be receptive, understanding of the need, and will work collaboratively to ensure the solution is in place promptly when the candidate has been hired.
When organization-wide accessibility is ignored, however, the higher likelihood is that the untrained IT staff will respond in a discriminatory fashion with a big “No, no way” at worst, or a “We’ll get to that later, after we’ve worked on higher priorities over the next couple of months, please try to make do in the meantime.”
Summary, and other accommodation needs
In summary the question of suitable technology accommodations is best answered by the candidate, but is made feasible and practical by addressing technology accessibility as a corporate wide venture.
This article has focused on technology related aspects of the existing work environment, and accommodations for individual candidates (for hire, for promotion, etc.). There are, of course, other non-technology related accommodation needs that may need to be considered, such as flexibility in hours and flexibility in inclement weather (it’s hard to get a wheelchair through foot-deep snow, and it’s hard for guide dogs to walk on patches of ice). These sorts of non-technical accommodation need can be addressed by liaising with HR and providing appropriate policies.
Transitioning from the ubiquitous ‘diversity footnote’ to prevalent hiring and promotion of people with disabilities is possible, it is less expensive than you likely imagined, and it is likely much more practical than you likely imagined.
Always keep in mind: Abilities first.
About this article
This article is published as part of The Accessibility Switchboard Project, an initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with support from the members of the Accessibility Switchboard Project Community Of Practice, and from the Maryland Department of Disabilities.
The Accessibility Switchboard Project. Q&A: I have a job applicant who has notified me they have a disability. What should I do now?. January 2017, Version 1.0. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: http://switchboard.nfb.org/
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‘Skills and abilities over disabilities’ by Chris M. Law & The Accessibility Switchboard Project. CC BY-SA 4.0.