Success in STEM
The issue of disclosure is tricky and much debated. Deciding at which point during the application, hiring, or employment process to reveal to an employer that you have a disability – if at all – is not easy. There is no one clear cut solution, but here are some issues to consider, and possible strategies that should make disclosure more comfortable for all parties involved.
First, we must recognize that disclosing for a job in a science and technology setting is somewhat different from disclosing for a position that may have more established protocols for accommodating persons with disabilities or that may be less technical. There are already many industries that have long histories of successfully employing and accommodating the needs of persons with various disabilities. These may range from unskilled labour and production jobs to skilled work in banking or government sectors.
Science and technology fields have certain industry-specific considerations and characteristics that have traditionally made it difficult for persons with disabilities to obtain jobs in these fields. The first characteristic is that by definition, many science and technology jobs are on the cutting edge of research in their specific field. As accommodations typically lag behind the capabilities of cuttingedge research and technology, it has historically been an extremely costly and almost unimaginable undertaking to accommodate a science and technology job for a person with a particular disability; the necessary accommodation either may not exist yet, or may be very cost prohibitive. Fortunately, with national and provincial sources of job accommodation funding becoming more available in Canada, cost considerations should be less of a concern for most employers. Also, the speed at which new accessible technologies are developed is starting to approach the development curve for mainstream technology, so for many traditional technologies or pieces of equipment being developed these days, there is most likely a company – or a division of the original development company – working on an accessible workaround or model of the same piece of technology or equipment.
Another challenge particularly common to science and technology workplaces is the use of expensive, uncustomizable workstations. This is common to such workplaces as chemical or biological research facilities, where workstations may have been constructed at a time when accessible standards of workplace design weren’t enforced, and adjusting them would be very costly. This trend may be seen in setups such as lab benches with water, gas, and vacuum utilities, where the controls would not be reachable by a person in a seated position. As lab designers are becoming more aware of persons with disabilities progressing through science education, they will be more sensitive to universal design. For the moment though, retrofitting older style lab benches is costly, and not always a priority.
A third consideration for science and technology jobs is the attitudes of the researchers or employers themselves. In many industries, people with disabilities encounter the attitude of, “We’re not sure how to accommodate a person with a disability, so we’ll just say that it’s an undue burden on the company.” The situation in science and technology is in some ways worse, and some ways better, than in other industries. Many employers and educators in science and technology fields begin a discussion in workplace accommodation with the thought that, “We don’t need to modify our workplace, because people with disabilities don’t work in science and technology jobs.” On the surface, this may seem like a very negative attitude with an anti-disability agenda. However, it may be possible that science and technology employers who believe this have never encountered a person with a disability who was qualified for or was applying for a science and technology job. The only way this stereotype can be corrected is for qualified people with disabilities to study in science and technology fields they are interested in, and upon completion of their education to get out and start applying for jobs, and be willing to disclose the fact that they are a person with a disability who needs accommodations. The fortunate thing about scientists, engineers, and other people in science and technology fields is that they’re very intelligent and creative individuals. If anyone can think of a workplace accommodation that has never been thought of before, they can.
When to Disclose a Disability
The decision to disclose is a very personal one, and it will differ from person to person. There are several logical points in the job search process for a disclosure to take place. Here, we will look at some of the potential positives and negatives of each point.
The first point in the job search process at which disclosure is possible is right on the application form, résumé, or CV itself. Many job seekers wonder how effective is it to disclose at this point? In the best case scenario, you’ve alerted an open-minded and sensitive member of hiring staff to your situation or needs, who will then make the necessary arrangements or considerations to ensure that your application process is smooth and unbiased. In the worst case, however, you’ve raised several red flags among the hiring staff and the department you hope to be working for about potential costly changes and accommodations that they believe must be made in order for a disabled person to hold the position being hired for. If the interviewers are overly anxious about this prospect, they may make the interview and selection process uncomfortable, or even a waste of time, for the qualified individual who has a disability. Unfortunately, all of this anxiety will have been developed without taking the time to meet with the disabled applicant to see their level of competency or the extent of their disability. While it may seem right to be completely forthcoming and out in the open with regards to your disability, it may result in unforeseen negative consequences due to preexisting stereotypes or misapprehensions.
The next opportunity for disclosure presents itself when the employer contacts an applicant to set up a job interview. While this is typically a short conversation, it does give the employer a first impression regarding an applicant’s speech and how they present themselves over the phone. If an applicant chooses to disclose at this point, it can still go either way. The employer may be pleased or impressed by your forthcoming manner and whole-heartedly proceed with the interview, or the employer might take this opportunity to express concerns regarding accommodations to the workplace or position itself. As this is a pre-interview chat, it may be an informal setting in which to discuss these issues, or the employer may not have the time to discuss anything if they did not plan time for any additional conversation to occur during this phone call. It is also important to keep in mind that the interview itself may not be a traditional, sit-and-chat (behavioural) interview. The employer may require all applicants to take an exam, perform some job-related functions, or be interviewed by a group of people. At the very least, it would be prudent to ask what style of interview it will be, so that if accommodations need to be made they can be requested at this point. At any rate, the employer would now have more information to use in making a decision about how to proceed with the interviewing and hiring process.
If an applicant is especially concerned about how the news of their disability will be received, they may wait until later to divulge this information. The applicant may feel it appropriate to hold off with disclosure until the interview itself or, if possible, until the job has been offered to them and their work has commenced. This may seem a very empowering and reasonable way to act, so the employer would have no chance to discriminate based on previous information. In the case of a physical or sensory disability, the condition will be noticeable most likely during the interview. If the applicant has made it that far without mention of their disability hindering their chances at getting a job, it is possible that their disability wouldn’t become a factor in their ability to keep the job either; but this can be a double-edged sword. If the disability in question is something minor or intermittent (a hidden disability), and the employer is unaware of it, a situation may arise due to unforeseen circumstances that may prevent the employee from carrying out their job to the fullest. They may cite their disability as the reason, but if their employer were hereto uninformed, this could create a very awkward situation with the employee having to explain why the disability had not been mentioned sooner. This could theoretically result in sanction or loss of job if the limitation is great enough, when proper accommodations may have been made if the employee had been more up-front about their situation earlier.
To read an article describing some of the types and effects of various hidden disabilities, please check out the story from Jobpostings magazine found at the end of this section or at the following URL on the NEADS website: www.neads.ca/en/norc/jobpostings/jp_hidden_disabilities.php
Employer Willingness to Accommodate
In 2003, Gilbride et al conducted a series of interviews and focus groups with both disabled people who had been successfully employed and companies which currently employ workers with disabilities in both a large city and mid-sized city setting. During their study, which also included a literature review of past research into this topic, the researchers came up with three main categories of factors that could result in companies being receptive to hiring, and ultimately hiring, people with disabilities:
Work cultural issues
- Employers include people with disabilities with all workers and treat them equally.
- Employers welcome diversity; they are egalitarian and inclusive.
- Employers’ management style is more personal and flexible.
- Employers focus on a worker’s performance, not his or her disability.
- Senior management expects and rewards diversity.
- Employers are comfortable providing accommodations to all their employees.
- The organization provides “cafeteria-style” benefits. (This is a benefit plan where employees may take advantage of certain medical or dental benefits as they wish rather than a prescribed “one plan fits all” arrangement.)
- The employer focuses on the employee’s capabilities and effectively matches the worker with the job requirements.
- The employer obtains input from people with disabilities on their ability to perform job duties, and he or she includes people with disabilities in all accommodation discussions.
- The employer focuses on essential, rather than marginal, functions.
- The employer offers internships, and they often lead to jobs.
Employer Experience and Support Issues
- The employer has the ability to supervise a diverse workforce.
- The employer views the community rehabilitation program (or other rehabilitation agency) as a partner and as an on-going employment support resource.
The following profiles look at two professionals with disabilities who are currently employed at major technology-oriented companies, Sanjeet Singh and Neil Graham. Their stories illustrate the importance of being upfront with one’s disability and taking the opportunity to advocate on one’s own behalf both in education and in the workplace. A longer story on Neil Graham called “Just Enjoying Life” follows the shorter one.