On disclosing a disability

The debate on how people with disabilities can disclosure* is one that seems to be without an end.  There are many differing opinions on how and when a job seeker should inform a prospective employer of a disability and request an accommodation. While my thoughts will only toss another voice in the mix but I’ll provide them in case they offer reassurance to someone who needs it.

For starters, informing an employer about one’s disability is on the same level as giving out a credit card number. It’s personal and should be shared only on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Shopper don’t walk into a store waving their credit cards to store clerks. They only take it out when ready to pay for an item. It’s not the store clerk’s business to have shopper’s credit card information before that point. Managing information about a disability is much like this. Employers do not have a valid reason for knowing if a job applicant has a disability until they plan to conduct a job interview, offer employment and when a job accommodation is needed. Even then there are conditions that should be met before an individual self-identifies.

For example, a deaf person should not identify as a person with a disability during resume submission because the application may never reach the point where the two parties meet.  However, self-identification may be in a deaf candidate’s interest after receiving a job interview invitation — but only if an accommodation (e.g. interpreter support, assisted listening devices, etc) is needed.

Those with disabilities that are apparent (e.g. wheelchair users, etc.) should also follow this approach. There is no valid reason for an employer know about the existence of a disability until they decide to meet with the individual.  At that point, the candidate must decide if self-identification is needed to help ensure that he or she has a beneficial meeting.

* I prefer to use “identify” or “self-identify”over “disclosure” because the latter suggests that having a disability is a dark secret or an undesirable state. 


Why organizations need a Chief Accessibility and Inclusion Officer

Over the past 20 years, the disability community has witnessed a steady increase in the number of businesses making equity statements as a way to communicate their support. They usually follow the refrains of ‘valuing differences and the creativity, productivity, and service excellence that people with disabilities offer’ or being ‘strongly committed to fostering diversity within our community’. Such statements are nice words but the disability community views them as empty ones when companies don’t have a practice framework to ensure that people managers live by them. Ensuring disability inclusion requires action – not just talk.

“But we have a diversity program” some have exclaimed when I make this point at meeting with employers. While diversity programs are great for raising acceptance of most diversity groups, they are seldom effective when it comes to people with disabilities. There are a few reasons for this.

The first thing is that, unlike groups based on culture, gender, religion, complexion and so on, disability is distinct in the way that its members tend to require adjustment to the work environment or how the work is done that goes beyond being tolerant and/or providing recognition for their differences. Employers must expend time and/or resources to remove accessibility barriers. The amount of resources required to make these adjustments depends on how the physical work environment, organizational culture and the function of the individual’s job interact with the employee’s disability and its severity.

Although it’s been said that the average accommodation cost less than $5oo, the price tag can sometimes go into thousands of dollars in cases that involve renovations or consumable accessibility services (e.g. personal support workers, Braille translation, audio transcribing, sign language interpreters, etc.). This creates a disincentive for employer that does not exist with the other diversity groups.

The second reason that including disability under the diversity banner is not effective is that disability is an individualized experience. Where people from one culture can use the diversity program framework to draw strength from others from the same group, people with disabilities to not gravitate towards others with disabilities on the basis that we are different from those who do not have one. This is even true when two persons share a similar disability. There is no bonding factors such as shared a language, folkways and/or values within the disability community – just shared behaviours. We with disabilities have stronger bonds with others from the cultures passed down to us from our parents than we do with other who have disabilities. (Note: Deaf Culture is the only exception among the disability groups because its members do have a shared language and values. All of which are passed peer-to-peer within the residential school setting.)

The final thing is that all cultures have their own way of responding – often negative – to the existence of a member who has a disability. While the views of people with disabilities has been generally sympathetic with cultural differences, the treatment people with disabilities has been, historically, that of over-institutionalization and being either shut out of the work force or segregation in the type of work we could be offered. As everyone knows, culture does not change overnight and certainly not with the creation of a diversity program or with drafting of an equity statement. So when disability is groups with the other diversity groups, its needs are commonly overlooked. (Those who disagree should ask a few persons with disabilities how high up the see disability sitting on the diversity totem pole!)

In view of the disability experience, which is something that most people without disabilities cannot fathom because it’s hidden from them, it’s not surprising that promoting accommodation policies and the use of equity statement do not encourage people with disabilities to be more open about their conditions. Nevertheless, becoming aware of this experience helps clarify why people in this equity group are reluctant to inform employers about their conditions when ever possible.
For the reasons listed above, employers seeking to build workforces that are truly equitable must create a framework that demonstrates not only their value for the talent and skills of people with disabilities but also that they have a process to integrate them in a manner that leads to opportunities to rise in the ranks.

To create such a framework, employers must take disability inclusion out from under the diversity umbrella and establish a program to address the issues that are unique to employees and job candidates with disabilities. Such a program would have accountability assigned to a Chief Accessibility and Inclusion Offer, preferably a person with a disability, who would have resources available to ensure the removal of barriers to not only accessing the environment but also to opportunities for advancement. Companies that create such a program would demonstrate that they are seriousness about fostering inclusion.

The opinions expressed in this article are my own and I do not claim that are consistent or reflect to views or policies of any organization that I’m currently work for or those that I have supported in the past. 

Accessibility: Understanding Communication

Helping employers fulfill their obligation to provide disability-related accommodations is something that is routinely expected of human resources professionals. Organizations look to human resources as the experts on the ‘human’ side of the workforce and supporting disability accommodation process clearly falls into that domain. However, the range of disability types that exist is as broad as how it affects an individual’s ability to function in the workplace. This makes it impossible to become an expert in all the possible job accommodations that are available.

As a result, human resources professionals may be asked to source out accommodation options for a disability type that they haven’t the slightest close on how to get started. This is especially true for employees who are deaf. The condition is one that often creates panic for human resources professionals when they asked to ‘book an interpreter’.

This is understandably a challenge for those who haven’t been exposed to people with deafness and other levels of hearing loss. Unlike purchase of a ramp to remove a barrier for wheelchair users, removing barriers to communication access involves a lot more than calling a contractor. This article lays the ground work for providing communication access by describing the communication constructs that exist in the workforce.

The first thing that human resources staff must understand is that the provision of sign language interpretation must be linked to not only to the employee’s job related duties but also the other areas that can have an impact on the individuals career. In addition, conversations that occur on the office or work floor do not have equal weight in terms of the employer’s obligation to accommodate.

Some types of conversations have a greater need for communication access support than others. To assess which types have priority, one must have a basic awareness of the communication levels occur in the workplace, which are formal, facilitative or casual.

Formal Conversations

Formal communication takes place during job interviews, performance reviews, training sessions and all other conversations where it is critical that everyone fully understands each other because miscommunications can have a detrimental impact on the relationship. This makes providing sign language interpreter essential.

Facilitative Conversations

Facilitative communication involves sharing of information that, though important, is not as formal as those cited above. Examples of a facilitative conversation include a project update meeting between a manger and an employee, an assembly line worker asking a co-worker for a hammer and so on. While each party must be able to understand the other, this level of conversation tends to be spontaneous and intended facilitate an activity.

There are times, however, when providing a sign language interpreter is recommended during for conversations at the facilitative level. This includes shop safety talks, business networking events, conference speeches/workshops and so on. An interpreter would ensure that employees with hearing disabilities have an opportunity to be fully engaged in the event.

Casual Conversations

Hearing and deaf employees share a responsibility to make conversations work at the casual level. This is because the goal of such exchanges is to develop or maintain relationships between people. Casual conversions include friendly talk between colleagues, typical lunchroom ‘chit-chat’, water cooler gossip sessions and other random workplace exchanges that are not directly related to the work. Trying to provide a sign language interpreter for every exchange that occurs on this level would not only be a logistical nightmare, it tends to be outside an employer’s duty to accommodate.

Even then, there are times when employers may be obligated to provide a sign language interpreter at events involving conversations at the casual level. For example, company celebrations or holiday parties can be considered work-related events because they have a goal of reaffirming or building team cohesiveness. Without an interpreter being present to provide access in a complex conversational milieu, deaf employees would not enjoy an equal opportunity to network or establish new relationships with new colleagues. They become spectators to the festivities – not participants.

In closing, being able to identify the setting that the conversation will take place makes it easier to predict when communication access is needed and set the accommodation process in motion before it becomes a contentious issue.


Accommodations and Job Interviews

While I was reading comment posted in the discussion board for deaf and hard of hearing professionals, I came across on where one individual asked the other members “When applying for a new job and scheduling a phone interview. Do you tell the interviewer up front that you are hard of hearing or do you attempt to go through the interview with the call without informing them?”

For me, I’ve always been frank about my being a deafened person and the need for sign language interpreters during interviews. My own experiences are different from the norm as work in the field of diversity and inclusion.

Nevertheless, I understand why other people in the hearing loss community (i.e. deaf, deafened and those with varying levels of hearing loss) may feel very reluctant to request interpreter service, Video Relay, Communication Access Real-time Translation for an interview. After all, jobseekers with disabilities are often advised to avoid mention that they have a differing condition when applying for jobs. This is out of a concern that if the disability is made known, it becomes a screening metric that eliminates them from competition.

This concern is a valid one. There has been tons of research that shows that stereotypes about disabilities can influence recruiters and hiring managers if the condition is known at the application stage. In fact, I once designed and lead a (successful) positive measures program to counteract this bias while employed with a large financial institution.

Although I believe that people with disabilities should not mention their conditions in the application, it’s for a different reason. When applying for a job, the cover letter or resume should only focus on the match between the candidate’s skills to the job requirements. In those documents, any space that is not used towards selling the candidate’s skills only sells the individual short.

The whole world changes when a job candidate is contacted by an employer to do a telephone pre-screen or invited to an invited to job interview. At this point the employer has determined that the applicant has the necessary skills, at least on paper, to do the job. The telephone pre-screen is meant to confirm the documents validity and the initial interview is intended to find out how well the candidate performed in the past. For this reason concealment of a disability or failing to request accommodations can prove to be fatal to the candidacy of someone with hearing loss or deafness.

Consider the communicative nature of job interviews. Candidate must be able to effectively respond to interviewer’s questions. This means that candidates with hearing loss or deafness who try to ‘pass’ when they need some sort of accommodation only places them a severe disadvantage.
Ways that passing can hurt a candidate’s chances include:

      – having to frequently ask interviewers to repeat themselves forces them to do most of the talking instead of listening for examples of the skills being offered to the company. This could come across as being less capable than the other candidates; and

– the question heard might actually be one quite different than what the interview posed, which means that the candidate could lose points for not providing the right example.

Either way, the candidate will have wasted a good part of the limited time available during a 50 minute job interview (or 30 minute telephone pre-screen) on bluffing and/or trying to comprehend rather that showcasing what they can do for the employer.

Worse yet, passing can result in a loss of leverage if there is a bona fide case of discrimination. On a legal level, candidates who need a disability-related accommodations but fail to request they are provided during the interview will have no recourse should they be eliminated from the competition for reasons other than those based on skills and experience. They have given a discriminating company a “get out of jail free” card that the legal system will honour because the employer can claim that they did all that they could do to ensure fairness.

So what are job applicants supposed to do? The answer is simple. Job applicants who have a hearing loss or are deaf should always request the accommodation they need when invited to an interview. In cases involving a telephone pre-screen, ask that the conversation is postponed till the necessary accommodations are provided. This will ensure that the supports are in place for both parties to be fully engaged while assessing the candidate’s potential to join the company.

One must be aware that requesting disability-related accommodations that, sometimes, employers may eliminate candidates who request accommodations. It’s an unfortunate fact that there are still plenty of jerk employers out the community. But having an interview invitation withdrawn after requesting an accommodation gives the candidate evidence that an act of discrimination had occurred, which is the basis of a human right complaint and/or other legal recourses.

Regardless, the risk of encountering a discriminating employer should never make on fear asking for accommodations because having the supports in place is the only way you can give yourself a fair chance at landing a job.



Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in post is my own and do not claim that it reflect that of my current employer.

Deaf people have more pressing issues.

Image shows a parking stall with a painted wheelchair user indicating that it is reserved for people who have physical disabilities.

Deaf people are being asked to fill out a survey that asks how they feel about being given access to parking spaces that are reserved for people with disabilities.

Although I completed the survey, those who wish to advocate that deaf people are permitted to park in these reserved spaces better think again because I find the whole concept rather preposterous.

The spirit behind reserved parking spots for people with disabilities is to remove a barrier for those who have difficulties with physical mobility. If deaf people (or those with hearing loss) who can drive, park and walk unrestricted using one effectively takes that spot away from someone who needs it.

I can just see it happening. A deaf person cheerfully pulls into a reserved parking spot, hops out and strolls into the store while a vehicle with a wheelchair user inside or a elderly passenger is forced to park a good distance away from the entrance.

Those who campaign for access to these spaces “because we deaf” do the rest of us a disservice because this exceeds the boundaries of reasonable accommodation. Advocating reserved parking privileges emits an egocentric odor that can leave a foul stench on all deaf persons.

We have bigger fish to fry than this. We need to increase the number/use of sign language interpreters/Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART), We need equal access to job opportunities. We have to fight for enhancements to television and movie captioning. So let’s focus on those very important areas rather on something that will recreate a barrier for people who have fought to have it removed in the first place.