Interviewing Workers with Obvious Disabilities

Joe HR Guy looks forward to interviewing his next candidate. Her resume sparkles. However, when she arrives, he’s surprised: The candidate is in a wheelchair. She can’t maneuver herself around the heavy boxes stacked near his door, so he suggests a nearby conference room. The table is the wrong height, so she can’t fill out the forms he needs. To break the awkward silence he says, “Do you mind my asking what happened to you?”

The interview is over before it begins. The ideal candidate ends up working for his competitor. And though Joe HR Guy is surprised, workers with disabilities are not. As recruiters and hiring managers cultivate top-notch staffs, they cannot afford to make Joe HR Guy’s mistakes and miss out on this talent pool.

Overlooked Talent

Data from the 2000 US Census shows that nearly 57% of the 30.6 million Americans with disabilities age 21 to 64 were employed. However, workers with disabilities and their advocates note that employers continue to either overlook or look down on this large pool of talented workers. Many problems begin at the inter-viewer’s door, the moment a physical disability becomes apparent.

“It’s so simple and basic,” says Jeff Klare, CEO of Hire Disability, an employment company. “People with disabilities are human beings. The focus has to be on the person, not on the disability. You speak person to person, not person to wheelchair or person to blind person.”

However, as Joe HR Guy demonstrates, that change in focus won’t happen if a company has not already hired people with disabilities or considered the possibility that they might apply. Every office in a building should be wheelchair-accessible. At the very least, the employment office must be.

Addressing the Disability During the Interview

Interviewers should be proactive, Klare says. “Engage the interviewee,” he suggests. “Nonverbal communication says a lot. Shake hands—and if the other person can’t shake, just touching him is important.” The customary “take a seat” greeting can be adapted by motioning for someone in a wheelchair to move closer.

When the interview begins, the disability should be a non-issue. Instead, the focus should be squarely on the applicant’s skill set and qualifications for the job.

However, at some point the disability should be addressed in the context of how the applicant can handle the job. Ideally, the issue will be raised first by the applicant, says Klare.

The candidate might say, “Because of my cerebral palsy I need a joystick mouse,” or, “In case you’re wondering about my hearing impairment, I use TDD and TTY devices.” If the interviewer does not know what TDD and TTY devices are, he’s not alone. (They’re telecommunications aids.) That gives the interviewee a chance to explain how the devices work, allaying the employer’s concerns about the disability while simultaneously demonstrating his own competence, forthrightness and motivation.

It’s the interviewer’s responsibility to raise the issue if the applicant does not. “What can we do to help you do this job better?” is a straightforward, nonthreatening question. “How did you become disabled?” while equally direct, is an unwise question to ask, because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits inquiring about the cause of a disability.

“A lot of people think the ADA is a confining law,” says Jonathan Kaufman, president of DisabilityWorks Inc. and The Monster Disability Advisor. “But I think it’s very inclusive. People with disabilities come from every racial, ethnic and religious group. In fact, we’re the only minority group anyone can join at any time.” Kaufman, who has cerebral palsy, notes that as the American workforce ages, increasing numbers of workers will face some sort of disability.

“We live in a litigious society,” he adds. “The ADA has created a lot of worries about lawsuits. If you’re an HR person who doesn’t know everything about the law, admit it. Ask the person you’re interviewing to give their own story and perspective on their lives — their disability and their abilities. Listen, react and be honest. You can even say, ‘Forgive me if I say anything wrong. Feel free to correct me.’” That enables the interviewer to see the applicant as a whole person— the goal of any good interviewer.

Which is exactly what Joe HR Guy will be, as soon as he gets those boxes out of his office.

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