I received a combat injury in Iraq in 2003 that left me with a permanent spinal cord injury. For years afterward, I applied for jobs based on my own perceptions of my limitations. Because I suffer chronic pain, and sometimes walk with the assistance of a cane, I thought that meant I had to narrow down my dreams. In our society, we are often led to believe that being disabled means being less in some way. I thought I was less in some way.
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I couldn't have been more wrong. I'm getting a master's degree in spring of 2017. I work hard and survive well in one of the most expensive cities in America. My perception of my own personal limitation was not reality, and hiring managers and recruiters must not let preconceptions about disabled candidates cloud their judgement during the hiring process.
Disability, Not Inability
Workplaces are required by law not to discriminate based on disability — including during the recruitment phase — and providing opportunities for disabled workers should be part of any company hiring initiative.
"The first step is to understand that having a disability should not eliminate a person from being considered as a good job candidate," says Sean Roy, codirector of PACER's National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, an organization that connects disabled youth with education and employment opportunities. "Many people with disabilities have valuable life experiences and possess the work skills employers are seeking. Unfortunately, there tends to be a lot of misinformation and fear that employers have about hiring people with disabilities. If employers have questions or concerns about hiring qualified candidates with disabilities, I would encourage them to contact local resources like their state's Vocational Rehabilitation agency or consult with national projects like the U.S. Department of Labor's Campaign for Disability Employment, which has a great website full of valuable information promoting disability employment."
It's important for recruiters not to confuse the label "disability" with the word "inability." Having a disability doesn't mean a candidate has less to offer in the workplace than non-disabled workers do. Providing true equal opportunities to all applicants and employees can actually have a positive effect for businesses.
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"Survey findings have found that the general public tends to favor supporting businesses that have employees who represent their communities," Roy says. "This means that people want to support business that show a commitment to employing people with disabilities."
As such, businesses interested in positive responses from consumers and surrounding communities should focus on having diverse workplaces.
"Employers may also include hiring workers with disabilities as part of a larger diversity initiative," Roy adds. "In fact, there are many companies who have embraced the idea and who are reaping such rewards as a diverse workplace, lower staff turnover, and workers who are absent less. Interested businesses can visit the U.S. Business Leadership Network to learn more about how others are coming together around this issue."
Prepping the Next Generation
To overcome bias, organizations like PACER focus on helping disabled youth build the patience, confidence, and skills they need to successfully enter the workforce one day.
"Some youth may feel their disability means they cannot accomplish great things, but this is simply not true," Roy says. "We have seen youths with very significant disabilities go on to great jobs or advanced degrees. Helping youths believe in themselves and become motivated to work towards the goals they set for themselves is key. Anybody can be employed. Some youths may take a little longer to reach their goals or may need some supports, and that's okay. Parents should set the expectation that their youths will be employed to the greatest extent possible as adults and help find opportunities for youths to practice working. The work you do now to help your youth prepare will pay off in the long run."
Whether a candidate suffered an injury in adulthood like me or was born with a disability and refuses to let it hold them back, it's important that recruiters and hiring managers give them the same opportunities afforded to other candidates. Failing to do so hurts businesses as much as it does disabled candidates.