I’m hoping to be making a major career change within the next thee months. In addition to all the usual terror and uncertainty that entails, I’ve never had to navigate disability in a formal workplace, and could really use some wisdom. I have chronic pain and noticeable gait changes caused by some sort of vaguely diagnosed autoimmune arthritis.
I’m youngish, reasonably fit, and look “healthy.” I don’t yet use any mobility devices beyond my trusty bicycle. My guess is that I get read as “injured” at least as often as “crippled.” This ability to pass is both good and bad, and I wish it wasn’t an asset in a job search, but it probably is.
In terms of accommodations, I imagine needing pretty basic things, such as a comfortable workstation and the ability to take frequent breaks to move around if I have a desk job. In a more active job, I would need occasional sit-down breaks. I would benefit from reduced hours or the flexibility to work from home during a few bad weeks a year. (In an ideal world, I would work four-day weeks, but wouldn’t we all?)
I’m looking for any tips on how to handle this in interviews and how to proceed once I (hopefully!) have a job offer in hand. Are there questions I can ask about workplace culture that would give me a little insight into if a company is going to be a decent place for me to work without crossing over the “don’t-say-you-are-disabled-because-discrimination!” boundary? Do I need legal disability status in order to ask for accommodations? Any resources you can recommend so that I will be well-versed in my rights if (when?) I encounter difficulties?
But really, Dear Butch, I could also use a pep talk from someone who has been there. I’m feeling a bit defeated before I even start and I know my lack of confidence in myself is going to derail everything about this process if I let it.
Pounding the Pavement with a Limp
Dear Pounding the Pavement with a Limp,
First things first: the pep talk!
I know it can be very discouraging to hear the statistics about disability and employment. And I’m not going to pretend that you won’t encounter disablism when looking for employment.
I was utterly terrified to hit the job market years ago when I was laid off from a large firm and had to face a job search with a visible impairment. I’d heard stories. I had my own fears about accommodations I might need and my own anxieties that these were ‘special rights’ instead of just accommodations I needed to do the great job I always do.
But you know what? The job search, and subsequent job searches, went just fine. I made a few decisions that I’ll explain further down, but I’m going to go ahead and say that, at least in my area, walking with a visible limp and using a cane or crutch to move did not seem to hurt my chances at all. As a matter of fact, every interview I had in that state resulted in a call back or a job offer.
Disablism is REAL, you guys. But it, much like disability itself, is on a spectrum and, as you say, the unfortunate result of disablism is that a person with a limp or a cane is less worrying to a potential employer than someone who uses a wraparound wheelchair and communication device.
In the world of disabled people, you and I are the privileged ones. For real.
Gosh that was a weird pep talk.
TL;DR: You are going to do great! You will not face nearly as much discrimination as you fear!
Which leaves the rest of your questions.
Yes, you need to meet the federal guidelines for what a disabled person is, which you do. From the U.S. Department of Justice’s ADA Guide: “An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Look it up if you want more details, but ‘walking’ is considered a major life activity, and being in constant pain substantially limits this ability.
The accommodations you describe actually just sound like good ergonomic practices to me, regardless of impairments. Everyone should be able to get up and move from their desks regularly, or sit down and take a break from physical labor, regularly. This is often written into contracts when a union is involved, and smart companies know they save on Worker’s Comp claims when they follow these guidelines.
A reduced work week is something that is often advertised from the get-go, and these jobs are sometimes hard to fill. Many companies that have 30 or 32-hours-a- week jobs struggle to fill them because people are looking for full-time work. That said, a 40-hour work week can be possible with breaks and working from home, but only for some jobs.
If you apply for a job that requires you to be on-site such as a hostess/greeter, asking for work from home would not fit under ‘reasonable’ in ‘reasonable accommodations’ per the law. If you have a desk job that involves answering phones, ditto. But if you have a desk job involving writing reports, inputting data, or the vast majority of other office jobs that I know of, email and LAN and all sorts of other commonly-used technology can make working from home a few weeks a year barely register as a blip on a company’s radar.
That is, a reasonable company.
Sometimes I feel like my disability is a superpower: companies that want someone to keep a chair warm and Always Be Available Just In Case and pressure people not to take vacations are terrible places to work, and I can easily rule myself out from the get-go.
As for how to ascertain a company’s culture: there are a few ways to do that.
What I always do: is bring at least one crutch to an interview. Both, if possible. I look visibly disabled, and I move through the hallways and watch reactions. Does anyone stare? Do people look away fixedly? Does the interviewer’s face fall when she comes to meet you?
These are all important data points.
If you’d rather not boldly announce your disability like this (and many, many people don’t; a friend of mine who works in a very different part of the country and in a very different industry, who uses a wheelchair nearly full-time, always manages with a cane for her interviews and just shows up in a chair the first day of work and that’s a perfectly legitimate choice, as well), the key way to discover how a company deals with disability is to use this phrase: work-life balance. How do they offer it?
Do they hesitate when they answer? Do they claim that giving you 10 sick days constitutes good work/life balance? Or do they describe their sabbatical program, how they worked with one woman to take time off for the trip of a lifetime, how the company all pooled their sick days together to help a dad of triplets to take more time off after their birth? Do they have formal job-sharing or reduced or adjusted workweeks?
These sorts of policies that acknowledge employees as full, rounded people who matter are the policies and practices that tell you the place will be a good place for a disabled person to work. They will be more likely to see you AND your disability, instead of just your disability. They will already have the systems in place for working from home when needed, and for cutting back on hours or moving them around. They will be able to see your skills and your personality as an asset to them, whether you need accommodations or not.
Good luck. I know this is all very nerve-wracking — searching for work as a member of any minority group that deals with discrimination is. But it is possible, and I think you are probably in a very good position to do it. I hope you can take your time and find the place that is right for you — and more importantly — that you see yourself as the asset you are. No one is doing you a favor by hiring you. They are getting themselves a great, talented employee. Don’t ever forget that.
This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on January 28, 2016.