Finding a job as a person with a disability often presents challenges that our able-bodied peers never have to face. Although there are laws in place to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities, having a disability is often a barrier to employment. In 2019, only 19.3% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 66.3% of people without disabilities. People with disabilities are less likely to have completed higher education and often work in lower paying fields. Furthermore, people with disabilities are far more likely to be completely out of the labor force compared to those without disabilities.
I wanted to share an experience I recently had applying for a job because, unfortunately, my experience is not unique.
In the middle of May, I applied for a job as a paralegal at a local law firm. It was a part-time, work-from-home job. I finished the paralegal program in December, but I never really started looking for a job because of the pandemic so this seemed like a good opportunity to get some experience. I sent in my resume and got a call for a phone interview. The phone interview went well until the interviewer asked me questions about my disability (she should not have known about my disability, but a friend of mine recommended me for the job and offhandedly mentioned that I have a spinal cord injury). She asked specific questions about how I type and how I would manage traveling to investigation sites. Immediately, I knew this was a problem, but the cat was out of the bag. She ended the interview saying that her ideal candidate would have plenty of experience but that I was still in the running for the top two spots.
About a week later, I get a phone call from the law firm saying that I was a close third, but that the top two candidates ultimately had more experience. This seemed reasonable as I have no experience, but a few hours later I found out that my non-disabled friend had made the final two. My friend has not finished the paralegal program yet, has not finished an internship yet, and I finished the program with better grades than she has. Obviously, experience was not as important as they said it was.
When looking for a job, it is important to know one’s rights are as a person with a disability. Most importantly, an employer may not ask an applicant if they have a disability during an interview. The employer may not ask medical questions or make the applicant take any medical exams. The employer may ask if the applicant is able to do the job with or without an accommodation, but nothing about any disability. After offering the job to the applicant, the employer may condition the offer on the applicant answering medical questions or passing a medical exam, but only if all employees are required to do the same.
Once employed, an employee with a disability is entitled to reasonable modifications so they can perform the job. Some examples of reasonable modifications are making an area wheelchair accessible, providing a quiet place to work with dictation software, or allowing a service animal in the office. Employers can deny accommodations when they would cause an undue hardship to the business.
This is just a brief overview of what to be prepared for when looking for a job as a person with a disability. Each person may approach the situation differently and the results will certainly vary. It is important to know what one’s rights are, and how to advocate for themselves effectively. My experience is but one of many, but hopefully by sharing what happened to me someone else will be better prepared for their next job interview.
Written by Mike Franz
Mike is a C6 quad from Michigan who has been injured 16+ years.