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How to present a disability during recruitment

Karl Booksh
Credit: University of Delaware/Evan Krape

Most scientists applying for a job face uncertainties, but scientists with disabilities face the additional challenge of having to decide if and when to inform prospective employers of their status. In the United States and the United Kingdom, job candidates have no legal obligation to reveal or discuss a disability. Sometimes, though, raising the topic early in the process can be a good idea. Discussing with interviewers how they would perform the job, with the right physical accommodations and working arrangements, may help them address any concerns and show that they are the best candidates. On the other hand, they may prefer to wait until after they are recruited to reveal a disability and seek an employer’s support.

Whether, when, and how much to tell is a choice to ponder carefully, depending on specific needs and personal circumstances. But knowing the law—knowing what employers are allowed to ask at each stage during recruitment—can help scientists with disabilities navigate the process successfully.

Talk about [your disability] in a context of how it makes you better, stronger, have perseverance, and view the world in different ways, which benefits the team.

—Karl Booksh

Your employment rights: Know the basics

Many countries have put in place laws and regulations to protect people with disabilities from workplace discrimination. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Equality Act 2010 states that employers must not treat workers with disabilities less favorably than other workers and must provide “reasonable adjustments” to make sure they aren’t put at a disadvantage when applying for or doing their jobs. Similar rules apply in the United States with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended in 2008.

This, of course, doesn’t change the fact that to be hired, they must have the necessary credentials and be able—with a reasonable accommodation if it’s needed—to carry out the essential functions of a job without posing a “significant risk of substantial harm” to themselves or others.

Early disclosure

Scientists may want to let a prospective employer know right away that they have a disability. For example, it is particularly important for scientists with disabilities to find out the details of what a job entails and evaluate what conditions they are able, or prepared, to work under. “A position may require frequent travel,” for instance, says Pamela Vickers, university ADA coordinator at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. “The applicant should seriously consider whether or not they can manage this essential function given the nature of their disability.” Vickers advises scientists to contact the department advertising the job and ask specific questions related to the position’s essential functions and responsibilities. A scientist may also ask a prospective employer directly if it is possible to visit and talk to the person currently holding the position, writes Caroline Moughton, a staff disability adviser in the equality and diversity unit at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Pam Vickers

Pam Vickers

Credit: Virginia Tech/Pamela G. Vickers

A scientist may choose to disclose a disability in the application form. At this stage, prospective employers in the United Kingdom are allowed to invite applicants with disabilities to come forward “to establish whether they need any reasonable adjustments during the recruitment process,” Moughton writes. The situation is similar in the United States, where applicants with dyslexia, for instance, may request help understanding the questions on the application form, or someone with a visual impairment may need any written materials provided during an interview to be printed in a large font, Vickers explains. Employers must ensure that such information does not lead to discrimination against a job applicant.  

In the United Kingdom, applicants may be invited to declare their disability under the positive about disabled people scheme, which guarantees an interview to candidates who meet the minimum criteria for the post. Likewise, in the United States, employers may invite applicants with disabilities to self-identify so that they can benefit from an affirmative action program.

Some scientists just feel more comfortable being upfront. Karl Booksh, a professor of chemistry at the University of Delaware in Newark and a wheelchair user, suggests that applicants disclose their disabilities in their cover letters. Disabled employees give employers an advantage, Booksh says. “Statistics consistently show that a diverse workforce makes for a stronger company. … Also, somebody who has different challenges might have effectively solved a problem on their own that provides a solution in the lab.”

A job applicant may ask reference-letter writers to mention disabilities, which “allows … the applicant to control the narrative without appearing to be engaging in identity politics,” Booksh says. Candidates can keep their own presentation of a disability to a minimum while letter writers explain that the disability does not prevent them from doing outstanding work, he explains. “I know my letter writers put in there that I used a wheelchair and that it was amazing the things I could do,” he says; he adds that this approach helps candidates “find a location willing to happily make needed accommodations. One does not want to fight the system to get needed resources and respect.”

Answering disability-related interview questions

During interviews, scientists may be prompted to discuss disability-related matters but only under very restricted conditions. In the United States, interviewers can’t ask questions likely to elicit information about a disability per se, such as whether an applicant has a disability or what is the nature or severity of the disability. However, “they can ask questions that are directly related to the job description, like ‘Are you able to carry out all necessary job assignments and functions and perform them in a safe manner?’” says Renee Hiller, director of human resources at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

Renee Hiller

Renee Hiller

Credit: Michigan Technological University/Renee Hiller

Provided they ask all applicants, or if a disability is visible or has been disclosed, U.S. employers may ask prospective employees to demonstrate or describe how they would perform a job function. In the case of a known disability, they may also ask whether a candidate needs reasonable accommodations to be able to do the job and what they would consist of.

Likewise, in the United Kingdom, applicants cannot be asked directly whether they have a disability. “All applicants should be asked broadly the same questions about their ability to meet the essential and desirable job criteria” and work safely, Moughton writes. Neither should U.K. employers discuss the need for reasonable adjustments before making a job offer, unless the disability has been voluntarily disclosed. “Applicants should answer questions on the basis that any necessary reasonable adjustments will be put in place,” she writes.

When a disability is apparent, or if a prospective employer knows about it, it may make sense to address any concerns head-on. “Where someone has a visible disability, then I think there are clear benefits to being open about it,” Moughton writes. “[S]howing that you are already performing many of the elements of the role … is likely to establish that you would be able to fulfil the role successfully” while giving the employer an indication of the reasonable adjustments you need, she writes. Taking a more proactive approach may also give you more control over the interview. “I've found people may be uncomfortable with not knowing what they can say or ask,” Booksh says. “So I figured the best line of action was to control the narrative on my terms. … [P]eople would see that being in a wheelchair was 'normal' to me, and I was just as capable of performing essential duties as any other applicant.”

You may need to draw a line between the essential and nonessential functions of the job you are applying for. When interviewing for his first faculty job, Booksh fielded a lot of questions about how he would work in the lab, he says. But, “I pointed out that most successful faculty members are not even in the lab. They’re writing papers and proposals and those kinds of things,” he says. Booksh also highlighted that there are different ways of reaching the same goal; he explained, for example, how he would describe to students the tasks he wanted them to carry out rather than demonstrating them. “I actually think this is a better learning style, as the student gets to do it and experience more,” he says. Teaching the traditional way “is just one way to get the job done right, but it’s not a necessary way.”

When it’s possible that it could go unnoticed, Vickers recommends not revealing your disability until the recruitment process is over. “I think as hard as we work to educate, there is still a stigma, particularly around some mental-health issues,” she says.

“The situation may be slightly more nuanced for people with highly stigmatized hidden disabilities, because the first priority is getting the job,” Booksh says. But “I think it is better for most people to be upfront with the disability” early in the recruitment process, he adds. Probably, “[i]t will come out … eventually. You want to be in a situation that is accepting, not one where you have to deny your identity.”

Disclosing on the job

Employers are given a lot more freedom to ask about disabilities once a job offer has been made. In the United States, employers may offer you a job on condition that you pass a medical examination, provided the requirement applies to all new employees. Employers cannot withdraw an offer because of information you disclose at that stage, unless it becomes apparent that you will be unable to carry out the essential functions of the job or will be a direct threat to the health or safety of yourself or others, even with reasonable accommodations in place, or that the needed accommodations would represent an “undue hardship” for the employer.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, “after the job offer, an applicant may be sent a pre-employment health questionnaire for the joint purpose of checking that an applicant is able to perform the role without adverse impact on their and others’ health, and also for establishing whether any reasonable adjustments are needed,” Moughton writes.

Caroline Moughton

Caroline Moughton

Courtesy of Caroline Moughton

Once you’re an employee, you may come forward at any time to request reasonable accommodations, which U.S. and U.K. employers have the duty to provide. “Starting a new job is often stressful, and having a disability or long-term health condition may add another layer of difficulty,” Moughton writes. If your employer knows, for example, that you have Asperger’s Syndrome and find it difficult to build relationships with new colleagues, she may arrange for you to have an informal work buddy, she explains.

When disclosing, it is important that you give your disability the right weight and highlight the positives. Never make a disability central to your application, and “talk about [your disability] in a context of how it makes you better, stronger, have perseverance, and view the world in different ways, which benefits the team,” Booksh says. Likewise, do not go into details about your medical or personal history. Instead, “emphasi[z]e your positive achievements and the advantages that living with a disability has brought, e.g. determination, flexibility, [and] problem-solving,” Moughton suggests.

Whatever challenges you face while applying, don’t let them distract you from your primary task: showing your prospective employer what a good fit you are for the role. Ultimately, “you’re there to present your strengths,” Vickers says. “Let … the employer know why you’re the best candidate.”