Will Smith — think of the Fresh Prince era, not Men in Black III — said it best: “Oh hell naw.” You might have a disability, but your career requirements are like anyone else's. You want to align your work with your passions and skillset. You want fair compensation. You want a position conducive to personal and professional growth. So, should your disability, whether cognitive, developmental or physical, stop you?
Oh hell naw.
And if you're a person with a disability (PWD), you're not alone. In Canada, 4.4 million people reported having a disability, including 4.7 percent of people aged 15 to 24. Meghan Hines, a fourth-year bachelor of commerce student at McMaster University, is part of that cohort. Born with muscular dystrophy, a neuromuscular disability, she's parlayed her skills into an external recruitment position at TD Canada Trust — allowing her to earn valuable career-related experience while completing her degree.
“I would encourage other PWDs searching for employment to not get discouraged,” she says. “It took me about three to four months before I was able to find an employer who (really appreciated) at my abilities and transferable skills.”
Among those prospective employers, Hines says, was a hiring manager who focused on Hines’ reliance on her wheelchair — they asked how she'd file paperwork, how she'd enter the office, how she'd use elevator buttons. Such employers can overlook qualified candidates, and, Hines adds, the intangible ethics which accompany many PWDs.
Hines succeeded and will continue to succeed, because she promoted her skills to prospective employers — not her disabilities. You can, too. How, you ask?
Start by digging up the dirt on your employer. Indentify employers who have strong equity policies (or even quotas) and employee resources for hiring people with disabilities. Among them are CIBC, BMO, and Scotiabank, says Sharon Myatt, an employment development consultant for the Ontario Job Information Network (JOIN).
“Some employers have portals,” she says. “You'll get a look-see if you disclose — not what your disability is, but just that you have one. You'll get fast-tracked in the application process.”
According to Myatt, it’s time to de-stigmatize employer perceptions about disabilities. “The biggest thing is shifting the mindset,” she says. “Employees with disabilities are just as skilled, educated, and capable as their non-disabled counterparts, as long as they're provided with the right accommodations and, sometimes, different coaching techniques.”
And employers are beginning to catch on. RBC, for example, published a study declaring that a whopping 90 percent of workers with disabilities scored better-than-average performance scores at work. For Hines, she believes it’s also time for employers to get creative. For example, TD allows her to work remotely, allowing her to focus less on transportation, and more on her job. “I don’t have to worry about going to an office during the year when I’m in Hamilton [at school],” she adds.
Of course, networking is important to everyone. But for PWDs, a personal network can be even more valuable: aside from providing access to the hidden job market, networking is all about personal connections. And those connections are more likely to recognize your abilities, not your disability.
Your network, says Frank Smith, national coordinator for the National Educational Association for Disabled Students (NEADS), is bigger than you think. “Everyone has at least 200 people they can count on,” says Smith. “Most people only think that people with high positions in a company are good contacts.” Not true. “It can be family, friends, teachers, or disability service providers.”
And, of course, there are additional resources. JOIN, for example, has a program pairing PWDs with mentors from Deloitte, Sheraton, AirJazz, and more. NEADS, meanwhile, lists nation-wide workshops, career fairs, and conferences on their website’s events calendar. Go forth, friends, and network.
This, of all, is one of the stickiest job-hunting questions: should I tell my employer about my disability? If so, how much should I share?
“Be honest. Present your disability as much as you need to,” says NEADS’s Smith. “The biggest mistake is that people conceal information from an employer, because some don’t want to identify with their disability. But in the process, you could set yourself up for failure at the job.”
It’s a sentiment JOIN’s Myatt echoes. “Disclosure is critical to be successful. You have to be comfortable about talking about your requirements. It can be a benefit at some large companies, but it can depend for medium or small-sized companies.” But, adds Hines, disclosure isn’t necessary if workplace accommodations aren’t. “In my opinion, disabilities should be disclosed only if it’ll affect an employee’s performance. It shouldn’t be used as an excuse, but rather as a way for employer and employee to work together to ensure an individual can effectively contribute to their role.”
So don’t be shy if you require extra software, equipment or training to actualize your skills. Because you might have a disability, but is it a hindrance? Oh. Hell. Naw.
SO, HOW CAN I TURN A DISABILITY INTO AN ADVANTAGE?
You can quickly turn your disability into a strength by focusing on what you, as a candidate, can bring to the table. NEADS's Smith explains how.
- Focus on your strengths first. If you require accommodations, frame them, whether they're equipment or software, as tools that'll boost your productivity. “Say, 'I'm very productive. I write well. I present myself well. I work well in a team,’” says Smith. “’And my accommodations will make me that much more successful.’ Never apologize.”
- Focus on the skills you've learned from your disability. Yes, there are the soft skills you've picked up — many have noted that PWDs can be creative problem-solvers. But there are hard skills, too. “You may have software or programming skills related to the accommodations your require,” adds Smith. “And those technical skills should be emphasized.”
- Highlight your academic successes. This is especially crucial for students who have less work experience. Academic achievement can tell employers a lot about your intellect, your problem-solving abilities, and your perseverance. “If you're an outstanding student, you may have achieved bursaries, scholarships, awards,” says Smith. “These should definitely be presented.”
- Highlight your non-work experience. Volunteer, or even hobby-related, experiences can be very telling of your skill-set. “Are you involved with community organizations or causes? Music or sports? Are you a blogger? Are you an expert in any particular area, even if it doesn't relate directly to your career or field of study?” asks Smith. “Put those experiences on your résumé. It shows you have a great deal to offer.”