Access to Success: A Guide for Employers
Profile: Mahadeo Sukhai
Medical Researcher and Student
By Neil Faba
Mahadeo Sukhai’s job involves a daily commute, hours of research, frequent overtime requirements, and interaction with a team of colleagues. But he doesn’t work in a typical employment environment.
Sukhai is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, performing research into leukemia at the Princess Margaret Hospital’s Ontario Cancer Institute. While it’s not, perhaps, employment in the traditional sense of the word, he says he considers it the same as any career position. He had to go through a formal interview process to secure the position, and has to do research that contributes to the field, both situations akin to what other employees go through.
“In the hospital environment, we’re treated as employees,” says Sukhai. “Research takes precedence over our schooling, even though my research is my schooling. Also, I’m responsible to my graduate supervisor.”
Sukhai says he credits that supervisor with providing him the chance to prove what he can do. As someone with a visual impairment, performing cell-based research in a lab environment, often involving work on mice, requires doing things in ways that differ from his colleagues. He says it would have been easy for his supervisor to deny him that opportunity based on these challenges, but she chose to take him in based on what he can do.
“She may have soul-searched for a few weeks before offering me the position, but ultimately she now knows what people with disabilities are capable of, and she won’t be shy about hiring people with disabilities in the future.”
The challenge of conducting research with a visual impairment has meant Sukhai has required several accommodations in order to do his work effectively, the most expensive of which has been a full-time research lab technician, paid for by the university. The technician assists Sukhai with the aspects of research experiments he can’t do on his own.
“My supervisor has been very good about this, saying that I don’t need my eyes to think,” he says. “If I can’t do an experiment, I can think it through, and then have someone else handle the drudgery of actually doing the experiment.”
Sukhai says other technologies he was given to help accommodate his needs in the lab have changed and been adapted. For example, he says that a computer originally installed in the lab for his use was eventually made available to other researchers as the need grew. Currently, he has his own laptop computer, with a 19-inch flatscreen monitor paid for by the university’s accommodation fund. He also uses a microscope hooked up to a television monitor, which allows him to better view his experiments, especially the ones conducted on mice. “Without it I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere,” says Sukhai.
Sukhai advises employers to “look beyond the disability.” He says that it is important employers keep an open mind in their hiring practices, focusing on what people with disabilities can do, rather than what they can’t do. He says barrier-free hiring is key to improving the opportunities of people with disabilities in the workforce, but that doesn’t mean employers should decide to hire people with disabilities and then simply give jobs to the first 100 people who come in fitting that description.
He also says creating a barrier-free workplace environment – in technology, physical space, the installation of elevators and wheelchair ramps, etc. – goes beyond meeting the needs of people with disabilities.
“It’s important that employers realize the initial costs involved in these types of things will be offset by the long-term benefits they provide,” says Sukhai. “Don’t think of an accommodation as something that will benefit one person; think of how many people will benefit in the long run.”
Sukhai says he chose to disclose his disability at the end of his interview with his graduate supervisor, so that it wouldn’t be the focus of the interview. But he says employers need to remember that people with disabilities are not required to disclose to an employer, and may not choose to do so.
“I’m happy and comfortable with my disability,” says Sukhai. “But not everyone is like that, and it took me a while to get to this point. Employers cannot fault someone for not disclosing, or even for deciding to disclose somewhere down the road, after they are hired.”
He says that people with disabilities who are seeking career employment must also remember to maintain a positive attitude, be confident in their own abilities, and to realize they have to do things for themselves. He says people who keep these things in mind will find that employers want to help them succeed and grow.
“There’s an old saying, give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime,” Sukhai says. “I’ve been taught to fish by some very gifted people.”
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