by Maureen Crawford Hentz
The single biggest barrier to full employment for the differently abled is the “fear of the unknown” of hiring/working with someone different. Employers know and generally comply with the law, but little is being done to educate co-workers in effective strategies for coping with their apprehension. I believe that hiring committees composed of co-workers/superiors/subordinates may often be the derailing factor in a differently-abled person’s job search process. Peer committees may simply not know how working with a differently-abled individual will work. I’ve often heard comments from potential co-workers that range from “well, how can she talk to us if she’s deaf?” to “well, there’s not enough room in here for a wheelchair.”
As differently-abled job searchers go through the process of interviewing, a good strategy may be to address potential concerns directly. This strategy is not required on the searcher’s part, but in my professional opinion, it is a technique to counterbalance the prejudice that people may feel — whether or not they express it. Remember, technically, employers are limited by law to asking if the candidate can accomplish the job (and in some cases, ask the candidate for an illustration of how). What I would argue, however, is that the real questions are the ones that a coworker would be afraid to ask. I think that the best defense, if you will, is an effective offense — putting people at ease.
For example, I recently had a deaf person as a client. She was concerned that the company where she was interviewing would be afraid she could not communicate with co-workers. As an excellent lip reader who also is verbally articulate, this client brought this issue up at the interview in the following way: “I want to let you know that I’m able to read lips, so understanding what is being said should not be a problem as long as I can see everyone’s face. If you need to get my attention, just wave or give me a tap on the arm. Likewise, if you don’t understand something I say, please ask me to repeat myself — no need to be embarrassed — communication is the key.”
An additional strategy for this client was to ask her references to specifically address the communication issue when giving the reference. She asked her former supervisors to bring up the communication issue with the reference-checker. This strategy also proved extremely effective, as the former employer was able to verify the ease of communication.
For this client, these strategies worked exceptionally well. She was subsequently hired for the job. With her coworkers, she has continued to work out day-to-day details, such as telephone calls and messages.
Each job-seeker needs to evaluate his/her feelings about this issue. Many job-seekers don’t want to have to educate everyone with whom they come in contact. That’s okay. Many job-seekers don’t want to directly address their disability. That’s okay. Many job-seekers feel that it is incumbent upon coworkers to initiate their own learning process. All of these feelings and beliefs are valid. Ultimately, each job-seeker must decide if, when and in what manner similar strategies should be employed.
Is it ok to say “Did you hear that….” to a deaf co-worker? Should I offer to push my supervisor’s wheelchair? Should I open a door for a person with leg braces? Do I offer to spell check my dyslexic co-worker’s memo before it goes out? Is it appropriate to ask how my HIV positive coworker is feeling? How do I shake hands with a visually impaired client?
Coworkers and others in the workplace have questions like these, but don’t know if, where and how they should be asked. In the millennial workplace, all members of a team must be sensitized to working with diverse people. Too often, however, diversity training is limited in sphere to racial/ethnic and gender issues. There are many diversity educators available who present workshops on issues specifically related to disability in the workplace. In my professional opinion, every company should include these kinds of programs routinely. By hosting diversity training sessions focusing on the issue of people with disabilities, co-workers can become not only sensitized to certain issues, but also more adept in using appropriate behaviors.
Similarly, a personnel/human-resources office should initiate educating potential coworkers about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the practicalities of reasonable accommodation. In this way, what I call the “Hidden Trap for Differently-Abled Job Seekers” can be effectively counterbalanced.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Regular QuintZine contributor Maureen Crawford Hentz is manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for OSRAM SYLVANIA Inc., a Siemens company. She is a nationally recognized expert on social networking and new media recruiting. With more than15 years of experience in the recruiting, consulting and employment areas, her interests include college student recruiting, disabilities in the workplace, business etiquette, and GLBT issues. Crawford Hentz has been quoted by The New York Times, NewsDay, The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio, among others. In addition to her work for QuintZine, she is a contributor to the Boston.com HR blog. She conducts workshops, keynotes and conference sessions nationally. Crawford Hentz holds a master of arts degree in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH, and a bachelor of arts degree in international studies from The American University, Washington, DC. She lives outside Boston, MA.
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