Landing a professional position in an uncertain economy can be challenging for any job seeker, whether you have a disability or not. Yet it can and is done, every day! Here are some tips to help you move from applicant to employee.
Consider Your Options
Before you even start your search, decide what you want in a job. Are you looking for an institute of higher learning that values diversity and has an expressed commitment to disability inclusion? What are your non-negotiables? Are you looking for a long-term position, or will something temporary or part-time be suitable? Starting your search with clearly defined personal criteria will help you decide quickly where to target your applications.
Know Your Rights
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants based on disabilities. It also requires employers to provide accommodations for qualified applicants and employees with disabilities. Even so, job seekers with “invisible” disabilities sometimes choose to keep them hidden, not self-identifying when invited to do so on paperwork or disclosing in order to request needed accommodations to interview most effectively or perform to their fullest once on board. For example, Brandy Greenfield (not her real name), a Project Management Professional in higher education with a nonvisible disability, chose not to disclose. “I was treated poorly by employers in the past,” she said. “I’ve never checked the ‘disabled’ box on an application because I’ve always been afraid of discrimination.” However, it is important to know that if you choose not to self-identify as a person with a disability or disclose in order to request an accommodation, employers are under no obligation to provide one. Furthermore, because many institutions of higher education are federal contractors, they are covered under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires them to take proactive steps to hire qualified people with disabilities. Thus, all other things being equal, in some circumstances, being open about your disability can provide a competitive edge. However, the decision to disclose is a personal one, and not doing so during the application and interview process doesn’t preclude you from doing so later.
Be Confident in What You Can Do
If you ask for accommodations, be sure to do so in a way that highlights your abilities. For example, you might say, “I can’t wait to come to X University to teach a sample class for communication majors. As a graduate assistant, I won several teaching awards, and I look forward to connecting with the students. Please make sure ahead of time that I will be able to get my wheelchair into the auditorium where the lecture will be held.” In other words, talk more about what you can do and focus less on what you can’t do, while still providing your potential employer the information they need.
Explain and Educate
It’s easy to get upset if an interviewer underestimates your abilities or suitability for a job based on a disability, but if you feel this happens, stay calm. Your goal is to educate the interviewer so that he or she understands you are the right person for the job. As part of this, be prepared to explain gaps in your job history due to illness. For example, Juan Perez, an educational product developer, experienced clinical depression during a long-term layoff. “It was hard to formulate an answer when asked about the time I was too sick to work, but I did it,” he says. “I remained composed and focused on my skills and abilities developed since my illness. Guess what? I got the job!”
Entering the job market can create anxiety for even the most seasoned applicant. Adding a disability to the mix can make the process even more stressful, but only if you let it. Projecting a positive attitude can do wonders for your prospects of career success, and employers are bound to be impressed by the skills and assets, some of which your disability may have even helped you hone, such as creativity, loyalty and problem-solving skills. As always, the most important thing is to remain focused on your goals and not let your disability limit your expectations, career or otherwise.
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