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“Stop stepping on eggshells.” The truth about getting a job with a disability.

“Stop stepping on eggshells.” The truth about getting a job with a disability.

There are certain career paths that require full physical ability. But for most other jobs, disability needn’t be a barrier. Why then are disabled jobseekers so common — and how can early talent hiring managers help make amends?

Too many disabled workers are searching for jobs

Is it possible that the recruitment landscape is getting worse for candidates with disabilities, rather than better?

Disability hiring seems to be an area where we’re losing precious (and hard-won) ground. After all, unemployment rates for disabled people are increasing in both the US and the UK

Even given the current context of job uncertainty, we can all agree that America’s 17.9% employment rate for disabled workers is astonishingly low — making the UK’s still-disappointing 52.3% almost look like something worth celebrating.

We need to understand why disabled people face so many difficulties entering, and staying, within the workforce. Why can we make progress in some areas of DEI, but not here?

How easy is it to enter the workforce with a disability?

Looking for that all-important full-time job out of university or college is rarely ever easy. Chances are you’re lacking an employment history, you’re unsure of your hard and soft skills, and you may never have been through an official hiring process before.

This becomes all the more difficult when living with a disability. 

Where other early talent candidates might worry about what to wear to an interview, a disabled applicant has to worry about whether there’ll be an elevator or access ramp. Sure, some inexperienced grads might fret about being challenged on their previous experience. But those living with a disability have to battle against generations of entrenched bias about what disabled people “can” and “can’t” do professionally.

The job-seeking experience for disabled individuals is one that needs to be heard to be believed. And that’s why we hosted ‘Embracing Disability in Early Talent Hiring’, an hour-long conversation chaired by Headstart’s Gareth Jones and featuring:

  • Liz Johnson – Paralympic Athlete, Managing Director & Co-Founder at The Ability People
  • Hardeep Rai – CEO, Kaleidoscope Group
  • Adil Ghani – Consultant, The Ability People.

Together, we discussed the challenges facing disabled early talent, how we can build all-abilities work environments, and put to rest several myths about disability and job performance. Here are the biggest learnings…

Life after education is like “dropping off the edge of a cliff” 

Whether a disabled person chooses to continue towards higher education or not, they will eventually be looking to enter the world of work. For many, this is associated with the sudden withdrawal of their existing support systems and accommodations.

Young people with a disability may often not have seen people like them represented in the world of work — directly or in the media. This can create the impression that there is no place for them in the modern workplace. 

🗯 “There was nobody who I could look up to and there was no examples in the media or anywhere at that time with somebody in a similar situation to myself in full-time employment.”

— Adil Ghani

You cannot be what you cannot see

Once established in the workplace, as our panel guests are, it becomes easier to see and hold a place for yourself. But as a recent grad or new entry to the job market, better representation and diversity is crucial for early talent confidence.

And that representation has a positive knock-on effect for able-bodied (but perhaps closed-minded) colleagues too. It’s important that people without disabilities see those with disabilities working beside them. 

🗯 “The barrier to that is that, actually, people don’t get enough exposure to difference and disability. So then that perception hasn’t changed”

— Liz Johnson

Our panel noted that there are actually very few examples of disabled people at the very top of the corporate ladder… or indeed in visible positions on the ladder at all. It’s important to everyone that disabled people are more included and visible within the workplace. 

So how do we improve our position? The answer to that is bigger than recruitment alone — it comes down to the culture we’re building within our organizations.

Building and developing the all-abilities workplace 

Creating an inclusive workplace is a holistic task. Physical adjustments to buildings are important and welcome, but they’re only the very first step on a long, and significant, journey.

An all-abilities workplace is one in which we have dismantled and dispelled the underlying assumption that disabled people are somehow “less than” those without disabilities. 

This means normalizing people’s differences — something that probably won’t happen fully in our career lifetimes, even if some of us are moving in the right direction.

🗯 “Hopefully one day we get to a point where we don’t have to distinguish between different types of disability or different types of people, we just accept difference for what it is and who and who it makes us, and we end up with the right people for the right roles.”

— Liz Johnson

The future of all-abilities work is a fruitful one

Including disabled people in our workforce makes great business sense — as well as being fair, responsible, and ethical. This is something our panel guests were quick to point out.

For example, disabled people are used to finding solutions and workarounds — solutions that others might never notice. This can make them inventive, creative, and astute in a professional setting.

🗯 “You know I don’t ever say to Liz [manager]. Oh, you need to help me get to X meeting place on time because that’s not her job.

She says “Can you get there for this time?” and then I either say yes or no. If I say yes, then it’s up to me. And I use my assistance and I have an adaptive car and I get there on time”

— Adil Ghani

Organizations that are alert and attuned to a wide variety of needs can unlock new commercial opportunities as well. Within the UK, the spending power of disabled people (the “purple pound”) is worth close to £250 million a year. Worldwide, it’s estimated to reach around $13 trillion, according to Hardeep Rai. How well can your current workforce empathize with this community?

🗯 “Unless you have been touched by [disability], or affected by it, you’re just not going to understand it. Doesn’t matter how hard you try, it’s not going to resonate with you.”

— Hardeep Rai

4 reality checks about jobs and disability

Discrimination is more often due to a lack of accurate information. Your organization isn’t making a deliberate attempt to exclude specific early talent groups, is it?

Based on our panel discussion with Liz, Hardeep, and Adil here are four common misunderstandings about a disabled person’s professional experience…


Disabled workers aren’t as ‘different’ as you’d expect

Have you been working on the assumption that disabled employees need additional support, attention, or assistance, even once the enduring recruitment barriers have been removed?

Well, that’s not necessarily true.

As we mentioned before, disabled people are expert problem-solvers — they are used to navigating a world that’s ill-designed for their daily needs. They may not need the organizational, administrative fuss and fanfare you’re imagining. 

🗯 “The other common misconception is that you need to provide charity or you need to provide additional support or actual assistance. If you create an environment for that individual to be independent and go about it in a way that they’re capable of, they probably don’t need you at all.”

– Liz Johnson

Hardeep also noted that the resilience, resourcefulness, and motivation of people with disabilities can make them valuable workers indeed.

Often, all that is needed is to remove systemic obstacles that stand in the way of our disabled team members.


Disabilities are largely irrelevant for most jobs

Yes, disabled workers may find that they have different physical experiences than employees without disabilities. But these are not typically relevant or important in the workplace. 

We need to ensure that our workspaces are accessible, of course, and that we have made reasonable adjustments. But our panel emphasized that this is usually where the HR responsibility ends.

🗯 “What a lot of employers need to start realizing is that actually whatever a disabled person goes through in their own lives, they typically don’t bring that into the workplace.

You don’t need to feel that you are taking on their problems and their burdens, necessarily. But you do have to have a support infrastructure in place to be able to support them as you do with any other employee.”

– Hardeep Rai

Disabled workers want to be respected and valued for who they are and the work that they do. Not the body they have.


Not trying is worse than getting it wrong

When you care about DEI, you want to get it right. And that desire to be inclusive can create fear of making mistakes. 

But here’s the thing: while it’s important to care and make our best efforts, we mustn’t let perfection become the enemy of good. Our guests were keen to emphasize that they would rather we tried, and learned from our mistakes, than that we didn’t try at all.

The panel recognized that many people do feel nervous when confronted with something they don’t understand. They have noticed a substantial change when professionals and organizations reach out for education and support to achieve their DEI objectives.

🗯 “I’ve noticed that if they feel that there are organizations that can hold their hand and help them through it, that there is a willingness to actually begin that change.”

– Hardeep Rai

So will you be bold and ask for help?


You don’t have to tread on eggshells

One of the biggest take-aways from our panel was just how important it is to treat everyone normally. Employees with disabilities want to feel part of the same team, rather than set apart.

🗯 “We all have different preferences, and we all have different needs, regardless of whether we’ve got a protected characteristic or that we’re in a particular situation.”

— Liz Johnson

Perhaps the most succinct and helpful summary of the advice came from Hardeep Rai: “Be brave and be empathetic”. Surely we can all do that?

Are you stepping up for inclusive graduate hiring?

Employers are starting to recognize the wealth of skill, determination, and adaptability available in disabled talent. But in the context of wider DEI, disability risks being ignored. 

50% of our panel audience admitted disability had ‘rarely’ been discussed in their organization over the past year. Would the same be true for yours?

We all need to step up and shake off the biases keeping disabled early talent at arm’s length. If you haven’t done so already, sit back and watch the full hour-long panel conversation here and make the commitment to discuss all-abilities inclusion with just one colleague this week.

Step by step we’ll get there — sooner rather than later.

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