If you’re a student or a new grad, there’s a good chance that you’re a member of the Millennial generation, otherwise known as Generation Y. And, as such, you will encounter many stereotypes as you make your first dash for the job market. People may call you lazy or spoiled or lacking in the hard-work mentality of previous generations. As a new worker, you will consistently face labels and be confronted by categories in which others would love to place you.
But when you’re a disabled person trying to find your first job – or any job for that matter – you will likely face additional stereotypes. Employers have preconceived ideas on what disability means and how that translates to their business. They think they know what a disabled worker can and cannot do. And they are usually wrong, which is why overall perceptions have begun to shift within the last few years. It is less about what employers think disabled employees can’t do, and more about what they can accomplish given the right environment.
Let’s start with the most basic reason for a change in how disabilities are perceived in the current workforce: familiarity. Who doesn’t have one family member or friend dealing with some sort of condition or ailment? As our definition of disability expands to include more invisible conditions, the number of those affected expands along with it. And for every person with a disability, there are countless people that make up their social network. Employers, quite simply, are more aware of disability than ever before.
“A lot of internal staff are now being touched by people with disabilities themselves – their parents, their children, their friends,” says Donna Smith, vice president of Career Edge, which offers the Ability Edge internship program for graduates with disabilities. “They have experience managing people with disabilities and in many cases they have seen that those people exceed their expectations.”
That isn’t to say that there aren’t misconceptions that abound. For the most part, it’s a fundamental lack of knowledge. If an employer has never hired a disabled worker — or one who has disclosed their disability, to be more precise — they often have little education about the basic facts of employability. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to shed their inhibitions.
“Some people think that if you hire somebody with a disability, you can’t fire them,” says Jamie McDermid, the associate director of employment services for the Ontario March of Dimes. “Those people are just downright fearful.” The largest hurdle in shifting public perception is convincing people that those with disabilities are just like everybody else. To aid in this shifting of perceptions, non-profit organizations have begun to use media campaigns and social media to educate employers.
Think Beyond the Label is one such campaign. Rolled out by the not-for-profit Health and Disability Advocates (HDA) as collaboration between 30 American states, the print and television advertisements use humour to poke fun at the issue of workplace diversity and preconceived notions. The idea is that all workplaces hire people who are different, from the “pattern deficient” dresser to the loud man in the next cubicle with “volume control syndrome” to the “copy incapable” assistant. There’s even space for the “rhythm impaired.” And anybody that’s ever been to a rowdy holiday party knows that bad dancing can be more of a workplace barrier than most “traditional” disabilities. How do you take your boss seriously after he does the mashed potato? It’s kind of impossible.
The Belgian charity CAP48 recently published a campaign featuring a glamorous model in nothing but a black bra. She is asking the viewer to look her in the eye. And the joke of it all is that people would not be looking at her breasts, but rather the fact that the gorgeous lady has only one full arm. Disabilities are not what define a person and ads like these promote the idea of seeing the person as a whole package.
A large part of the movement to sway workplace perception is happening online in supportive enclaves like the GimpGirl Community. GimpGirl is a place where women with disabilities can join together in discourse using tools like humour and art to section off a part of the web and provide insight from within. Since the community promotes self-advocacy and self-efficacy for its members, it can only be assumed that those feelings of empowerment translate to how GimpGirl’s members present themselves in interviews and on the job. And that is the bottom line: the biggest barriers are broken at the individual level.
Every time a person with a disability does well in a job, they also do their part to shift perceptions for the community as a whole. By being hardworking, innovative and approachable, people with disabilities open up their workplaces to new perceptions about identity and ability. “When our disabled client is successful (at work),” states Jamie McDermind, “that employer is now a convert.”
It is not hard to convert skeptical employers into believers in this day and age, especially when we refer to a newer worker. “Younger people with disabilities, they are probably computer-able, for sure. From that point of view, they have transferable skills,” says McDermid, who has been working with the March of Dimes for the last 29 years. “They have been skilled in an integrated environment, versus a segregated one, like my generation would have been.”
In fact, because of these integrated environments, students with disabilities have been managing their own accommodations on campus for years. When they finally enter the workforce, graduates are highly competent when it comes to finding ways to be productive and efficient. “Folks with disabilities who are attending college and attending university, many of the barriers are gone for them,” concludes McDermid. “They should not look at themselves as disabled.”
Indeed, students with disabilities have the skills and can do the job. What they need to focus on, like any young worker, is seizing every opportunity. It is vital that college and university graduates go out into the world with vigor. “The attitude of the job seeker is paramount,” says Mark Gruenheid, a program manager of The Greater Vancouver Business Leadership Network, which is a program of the British Columbia Centre for Ability.
Gruenheid works with businesses to promote the hiring of people with disabilities and has been in the field since 1992. He believes that the biggest facet in altering how disabled people are perceived is the approach of the job seeker. “If you go in (to an interview) believing in yourself and talking about what you can do over what you cannot do, you will do much better,” he says. “If your foremost introduction of yourself starts with ‘Hi, I’m so and so and I have a disability,’ that lessens your chances.”
Quite likely, you aren’t the first person with a disability that has entered those doors. “Once an employer has taken a chance and decided they want to give an opportunity to someone with a disability — when it is a positive experience — that opens the floodgates for more opportunities for disabled people in that organization,” Gruenheid says, optimistically.
Plus, he adds, the number of people who will become disabled or be affected by a family member with a disability is increasing. “It’s no longer something that happens to others,” he says. “It’s a normal part of life.” jp