Disability, Discrimination and the Job Search

Disability discrimination in the job market has been making the round lately. It’s far from a new issue but something happened which on the face of it seems particularly bad (though isn’t that surprising when you think about it) that drew attention to the phenomenon of job ads immediately disqualifying disabled applicants by including job requirements that aren’t actually required for the job. The most common offenders include the capacity to carry at least 25lbs for jobs that generally don’t require physical labour like office work (there are definitely jobs where this requirement makes complete sense but it far to often pops up in places where it doesn’t) or the requirement that applicants have a valid driver’s license (a personal pet peeve of mine because it’s the one that affects me most often). I was actually fired from a position on my second day because I don’t have a license even though they forgot to put it in the job description and didn’t mention it once during the prolonged hiring process.

The ad that inspired the most recent scrutiny into how employers discriminate against disabled people before we even have a chance to apply came from an organization that purports to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities (person first language intentional as per the organizations preferences). The fact that it was a disability focused organization was the reason it garnered so much shock. The Arc of Texas posted two job openings which took the usual preemptive discrimination way beyond unnecessary requirements for driver’s licenses and ability to carry arbitrary weights. For the position of CEO they required (quotes taken from David M. Perry’s blog which includes screenshots of the original job postings)

CEO

Physical and Mental Requirements: 

  • Seeing
  • Hearing/Listening
  • Clear speech
  • Ability to move distances between offices and workspaces
  • Driving

Their job posting for Advocacy Coordinator took it even further

Advocacy Coordinator

Physical and Mental Requirements: 

  • Seeing
  • Hearing/Listening
  • Clear speech
  • Touching :dexterity hand and finger
  • Ability to move distances between offices and workspaces
  • Minor pushing and pulling
  • Lifting up to 25 lbs.
  • Carrying up to 25 lbs
  • Driving

These requirements clearly exempt most disabled people from qualifying and none of them really reflect abilities required for either position. David M. Perry contacted them about the job descriptions and The Arc of Texas has since apologized and removed the language excluding disabled applicants from the job listing (to see the full apology click the link above to go to David’s blog.

These types of overly specific job requirements are becoming more common and the fact that they popped up in a job listing for a disability organization does not surprise me. I mean, yes it’s a big face palm moment but not shocking. I say this even acknowledging that their apology is likely perfectly sincere.

The Arc of Texas is not an organization run by disabled people. I can’t say whether or not they have disabled people working for them or if they do what positions those individuals hold. It was however set up by nondisabled people to advocate for disabled people. Whether this origin model remains, I don’t know but I would be quite surprised if they were completely untouched by the charity model of disability. The charity model is closely related to the idea that disabled people need saving. This rescue inevitably is not meant to come from within the disability community but from the outside.

Whether they considered it consciously or not, a disabled person in the position of CEO or Advocacy Coordinator does not really fit within the saviour mindset of the charity model. The oversight was likely unintentional but influenced by ingrained bias.

The faux pas did however shed light on the fact that this issue is widespread and exists outside the nonprofit sector. These overly specific criteria exist in my chosen field of academia. This is personally troubling as I invest years and thousands of dollars into my doctoral studies. People entering academia already have to contend with the shrinking number of job secure tenure track positions as universities increasingly rely on short term contract, poorly paid adjunct positions. To add overt discrimination to that already precarious future is daunting.

The question becomes, What do individuals do about discriminatory hiring practices. Sure The Arc of Texas apologized and fixed their job listing but David Perry (who called them out) wasn’t an applicant. He wasn’t risking anything.

An applicant in the same position might get an apology but they have no way of knowing how their complaint will be perceived by the employer.

In my own job search experience, I’ve started reading the required qualifications before I even read the job description. If it contains the hated driving requirement or any other physical requirement I can’t meet, I don’t apply, regardless of how unnecessary that requirement seems in the context of the job description. It just isn’t worth the trouble. Particularly if you are applying in a smallish community where news of being the squeaky wheel might get around to other potential employers.

In scenarios where I have been directly discriminated against I may take some low key very careful diplomatic action. As in the case where I was fired for not being able to drive because I was also framed as being dishonest despite their lack of communicating the requirement. I went home, cried for about an hour then wrote a very carefully worded e-mail to HR, pointing out the lack of communication about the need for a driver’s license and even proposing an alternate way for me to do the job at no cost to them. In this case, I had my job back two days later but I should never have been fired in the first place. Over the two contract terms I worked for them, I conclusively proved that you did not need to drive to do the job I had been hired for.

In another case my diplomatic protest was more a futile act performed to  both soothe my pride and force them to face me.

I had applied for a customer service position that was primarily described as working one on one with people. Some minor computer use would be required but not extensively. I was offered an interview but it came with the added requirement of a typing test which required me to be able to type 60wpm to pass. I type one handed so this is an impossibility for me.

Before being offered the interview, I had already been required to get a low level of security clearance (more than a criminal record check) so I had already invested quite a bit of time and effort into this job opportunity. I knew that the computer use was described as minimal so I identified my disability to HR saying that I would not be able to pass the typing test and asked about possible accommodation to which my HR contact responded

This position is 100% data entry at high volumes. No accommodation can be made. We will keep your resume on file and contact you if you fit a future position. (emphasis mine)

It wasn’t even signed. I was shocked and very confused. I went back and checked the job listing which still said customer service with emphasis on in person service. The term data entry did not appear at any point in the listing.

I spent the day being hurt and furious and unsure how to proceed. Eventually at around 3:00AM (I was so angry I couldn’t sleep). I again fell back on my diplomatic e-mail skills. I wrote back expressing my confusion and pasted the entire text of the job listing into the e-mail, making a specific point to highlight that the words data entry did not appear much less reference to data entry at high volumes.

Later that day I received a response with no less than three effusive apologies and a claim that they had gotten confused and thought I was applying to a separate data entry position (to which I did not apply). A confusion that only came apparently after I had disclosed a disability. I was invited to come to the interview.

At this point I knew I didn’t have a shot in hell of getting the job. I refer you back to the text of their e-mail, not only did they change the job description to something they could be sure I was not qualified for, they had made the false offer to consider me for positions I was qualified for. Like the one I had applied to and they were actively interviewing for. The last line of the abrupt e-mail might as well have read

We have shredded your resume and application, you will never work here.

I doubt the HR rep even reported our unfortunate exchange to their boss because they were the person I faced when I showed up for that interview. The organization is a big one and they have other HR personnel who could have done the interview but the incident wasn’t mentioned.

I knew going in that I would never get the job now under the circumstances but I challenged them anyway and still showed up. I did this because unlike an overly specific job listing I knew I was qualified for that job and I had e-mail proof of their mismanagement of the situation. Even though the job would never go to me, I could make a point by showing up.

Challenging specific job criteria is harder because it gives them a chance to make excuses.

The real problem is that discrimination is easy whether it be from the gamble that no one will challenge a discriminatory job listing or by simply not hiring the disabled applicant. Instances like the two I experienced are far rarer. It’s way to easy to discriminate without leaving evidence and making a fuss can hurt a failed applicant’s future job prospects.

In my rebellions against my ill treatment, I had evidence of wrongdoing and I only ever took it so far as challenging the specific employer so the risk of further backlash was minimal.

Sure Canada has human right’s law which people can use to challenge discrimination but doing so can come with a price. Those actions are generally public so future potential employers can find out that you have made a complaint. They may decide that you are a potential trouble maker and not even let you get to the interview stage for fear that you may file a complaint against them.

Unfortunately self-advocacy, particularly when fighting discrimination is far to often perceived as trouble making. In a society where disabled people are already far to often unemployed or underemployed, it is not surprising that we far more often choose to not rock the boat at all for fear of the ripples coming back to bite us later.

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