Job Hunting while Disabled

PwDs are 18 % of the population and 9.5 % of the workforce. Here’s how not to illegally jerk them around during the recruiting process.

Four individuals in a warehouse setting wearing brightly colored safety vests, one of them a woman in a wheelchair
Four individuals in a warehouse setting wearing brightly colored safety vests, one of them a woman in a wheelchair
Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Note: every “bad” HR behavior listed in this article, I have had personally happen to me, or heard about first-hand from the person it happened to IN THE LAST YEAR !!! We are in the dark ages when it comes to employing people with disabilities.

Back story

People with disabilities have always been on the outer fringe of employment.

  • Before COVID, the unemployment rate for PwDs was almost 2 1/2 times higher than the general unemployment rate. That is an average, which hides additional intersectional bias — the rates of unemployment for Whites and Asians with disabilities is 75 % higher than people without disabilities. For people who identify as Hispanic or Black with disabilities, the unemployment rate is almost 300 % higher than for people without disabilities (of any color).
  • Due to lower rates of post-secondary education, PwDs are more likely to be in blue-collar jobs like retail, the category which COVID has hit the hardest.

A recent survey by Global Disability Inclusion showed that 51% of people with a disability have either been laid off, furloughed, or believe they will lose their job in the next 90 days compared to 28% of those without a disability. 20 % of people with disabilities have lost (not just fear losing) their jobs or been furloughed as part of COVID-19. This figure compares to 14 % of people without disabilities who have lost their jobs or been furloughed during the same period.

So, there is a metric <bleep>-ton of people with disabilities looking for work right now. What they want, and what they are legally entitled to, is an equal and accessible end-to-end job application process.

Step 1: Organizational research

Researching a company is often the first step in a job application process. It’s how people figure out that this is a company they want to work for, and also help people craft their cover letters. To provide equal access:

  • The job boards you post on should be accessible. True, you cannot control who scrapes your site and picks up the job description. What you can do is try to help potential applicants by letting them know which portals are “official” and accessible.
  • The organizational website should be accessible.
  • There should not be any ableist requirements in the job descriptions — no statements about needing to be able to use a keyboard and a mouse simultaneously, no requirements for being able to lift 20 lbs, or stand for 4 hours for programmers. Those fake requirements are code for “no people with disabilities need apply.” If the task is absolutely essential to job success, sure, leave it in. If it’s not crucial, it’s ableist and illegal. If it’s not crucial and it stays in, your organization is likely to be on the wrong end of an EEOC complaint someday.

Step 2: The application

Applying, which is the next phase of the job application process, is where accessibility blockers frequently pop up.

  • The entire job application submission process must be accessible. That means WCAG 2.0 Level AA must be followed, at a minimum. Many third-party vendors like Brass Ring and Taleo are NOT compliant. WorkDay’s default software is accessible, but if your organization has customized it, there is the significant potential that the customizations have broken that default accessibility. Here are a few things (not intended to be an exhaustive list) that make job applications inaccessible: Use of inaccessible CAPTCHAs, lack of alt-text, video help with no captioning or described audio, a requirement to use a mouse or touch, failure to work/reflow with magnification, vague link text like “click here,” timeouts that are too fast, bad color choices, failure to report state changes on the screen to screen reader users, bad forms, vague error messages. And those items only cover what I’ve seen or heard about in the last two weeks that is at the top of my mind.
  • Looking for a job is exhausting. Looking for a job when you have a disability is ridiculously exhausting. Does your job application software do things like save resumes for future applications and allow you to apply with a LinkedIn profile? Great, you have a curb cut — good for people without disabilities, great for people with disabilities. I have one friend who refuses to apply for any job via WorkDay because the UI is so terrible that it takes too much time to submit a single application.
  • Any tests or evaluations used by the organization must be accessible — did you hear that one, Hacker Rank? If they are not accessible, you had better have an accommodations or alternative assessment process that does not discriminate against the applicant. Under NO circumstances do you dismiss the applicant or tell them that the job has already been filled. That is the prime example of how to end up in front of the EEOC.

Step 3: The interviews

  • The interviews must be either physically or digitally accessible. That includes providing captioning or interpreters if requested.
  • To successfully conduct unbiased interviews, the interviewers must receive training on unconscious bias and interviewing people with disabilities. You don’t always get firm handshakes and eye contact when you are interviewing people with disabilities. That doesn’t mean they can’t do the job.
  • The candidate should be able to EASILY and PAINLESSLY request an interview/job accommodation at any time in the process without FEAR OF RETRIBUTION.
  • There should be multiple channels using different modalities (i.e., both keyboard-driven such as chat/email + voice) to reach out to TA or HR. And here’s an idea — actually return the messages? There is nothing like a full voicemail folder to tell a candidate that they will never feel like they are valued or belong, even if they get the job.

Step 4: The Offer

The offer stage seems to feel like death by 1000 PDF files sometimes.

  • If those PDFs are inaccessible, how will they understand their benefits or provide anything that has to be signed?
  • If third-party vendors are doing background checks, their processes need to be accessible too. Don’t give a blind employee a choice between finding a copy of a paper paycheck stub (I’m largely sighted, I don’t know that I could do it), giving someone their SSN to try and get it through an inaccessible paycheck portal, or producing their entire tax return. That is NOT acceptable.
  • Benefits, 401K plan enrollment, health insurance, I-9 — it ALL has to be accessible.

Step 5: The Onboarding

If you have not onboarded someone with a particular type of disability before, take a very critical eye and walk through your onboarding process step by step. Here is an example of why that is so important.

Last week, for some reason, my employee email app on my personal phone blew up. I started the app, and the screen said, “We lost all your data, please reinstall.” I was effectively in the same position as any new employee. But my employer uses RSA (a complete accessibility dumpster fire). I struggle to get the “copy” function to work on my phone because I have almost no feeling in my hands and also have severe arthritis. RSA resets the password every 60 seconds. So I am trying (with my arthritic hands with no feeling) to generate a key, copy it, enter my login information (with my long name and my 12 character minimum required password) while flip-flopping back and forth between apps. I tried so many times and couldn’t get it done in the time limit that RSA locked me out. Last time I tried to configure my email using RSA, after 8 tries, the help desk center (which was in-person) asked for my phone and did it for me. That isn’t an option now #COVIDLife. If I were a new employee — I would have gone a week so far without work email. And I’ve invested hours of time trying to get this issue resolved.

These are the kinds of things that may seem trivial to someone without a disability but can cause a person with a disability who has been facing these barriers their entire life to lose their sh*t.

Other issues to consider for onboarding employees with disabilities are:

  1. Can *all* necessary software be installed and activated in an accessible manner?
  2. If you have a software catalog, what is your process for allowing the installation of “unapproved” software like JAWS, NVDA, color analysis and magnification tools?
  3. Are all videos captioned and audio described?
  4. Do you have a buddy system where the new employee can reach out for help to someone OUTSIDE their organization? It is really important for people with disabilities to get exposure to other individuals outside their team?
  5. Is your training WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliant?
  6. Are your internal communications compliant? Or do they lead to inaccessible PDFs and web pages?

People with disabilities are too large of a group for any organization of significant size to deliberately ignore. The five steps to becoming an employee — research, application, interview, offer, and onboarding — are the first introduction to disability equality most people will ever experience with your organization. A glitch at any one of these steps could result in a very expensive lawsuit. This stuff MATTERS !!!! Please give it the attention it deserves.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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