My Disability Is Obvious In Job Interviews. Is That A Bad Thing?
The interview process can be a disability minefield.
“So… how does the winter weather affect you?”
I sat across from the person interviewing me for a job I really wanted, totally unsure of how to respond.
It was the spring of 2016, and I had applied for more than 100 jobs in my chosen field of journalism. I was about to finish graduate school, and I knew that I needed to be as open and flexible as possible given the dearth of opportunities in media. I’m also physically disabled and wear a tracheostomy tube around my neck, which helps me breathe. My disability is visible; it’s usually one of the first things a person notices when they meet me.
My interview that day was for a content manager position at a local news outlet. It was a desk job. I would be publishing articles, producing story packages, and updating the homepage.
I was prepared to answer any question related to the position, but when the editor-in-chief asked me, “How does the winter weather affect you? Doesn’t it make you dry?” while gesturing at my tracheostomy tube, I was taken aback. This wasn’t a field-reporting job, so I wasn’t going to be spending all that much time outdoors. Why would I be asked this?
I hesitated. By giving any answer at all, I realized I would be acknowledging my disability and responding to a question that had nothing to do with the job. But what other choice did I have? I insisted that the weather didn’t make a difference and reiterated all of the reasons why I was a strong candidate.
The editor listened and asked me more questions, and then it was over. I went through three more hours of back-to-back interviews, but that first conversation threw me off for the rest of the day. I spent all night wondering if I’d messed up my chances. A few days later, I found out I didn’t get the job.
Applying for jobs while disabled is no easy feat. Only about 18% of disabled people were employed in 2020, compared with nearly 62% of non-disabled people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the most stressful parts about a job search for many disabled candidates is deciding whether or not to disclose a disability — and, if so, when. The implications are also different for people with invisible disabilities, such as chronic pain, and those like me who are visibly disabled.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits prospective employers from discriminating based on disability at any point during a hiring process. In particular, hiring managers “cannot make any pre-employment inquiry about a disability or the nature or severity of a disability.” It also stipulates that “an employer may, however, ask questions about the ability to perform specific job functions and may, with certain limitations, ask an individual with a disability to describe or demonstrate how s/he would perform these functions.”
Despite the ADA, it’s common within the disability community to be fearful of prejudice surrounding an open job. To combat a situation that might create a bias, many try to avoid revealing any information about a disability to employers — but this is much more complicated in practice. For example, if a hiring manager asks about a disability outright during an interview, like in my case, it’s on the candidate to decide how to respond. While it might be inappropriate and legally questionable for a prospective employer to ask this type of question, in the heat of the moment, it feels as though we have no choice but to disclose. We don’t want to come across as difficult or uncooperative, and thus less worthy of being hired. And we know that employment discrimination is often hard to prove.
So was the question I got from the editor-in-chief about winter weather fair game?
“I don’t think so, because it’s not a question about the type of accommodation for the interview or the job,” said Doron Dorfman, an associate professor at Syracuse University College of Law, who specializes in disability law and teaches employment discrimination. “I also don’t really see it as job-related or considered a business necessity. If it’s a desk job, why is the weather so important?”
The fact that I was even asked the question was a reminder that disclosure of disability is a double-edged sword. By nature, a job interview is about showing what you can do, and disability is usually viewed as a weakness. Of course, the risk of disclosing a disability during an interview is dependent on what the employer’s preconceived notions about disability are. The interviewer might make assumptions about your competence. And yet, waiting to disclose until you receive a job offer can also be tricky — employers may wonder why you waited and, worst-case scenario, might even doubt whether you’re “really” disabled. There’s a fine line between coming across as incapable of doing the job or “not disabled enough” to receive accommodations. Disclosure is closely connected with race and class, too, as poor disabled people of color are likely to face even more discrimination than their counterparts.
For some people, though, disclosing a disability is necessary for a job interview in order to request accommodations, Dorfman said. Employers can’t provide them if they don’t know. But those with invisible disabilities may be asked to submit documentation proving their disability status and need for accommodations — which can indirectly feed into what Dorfman called a “fear of the disability con,” or the ableist notion that disabled people are faking in order to gain some unfair advantage.
On the other hand, talking about disability can also help destigmatize it. Once I started honing my expertise as a disability reporter, I found it easier to talk about my own disability during job interviews because it helped me explain why my work was so strong: I had direct experience with the community I covered. Occasionally I’d get questions about my disability as it related to my career, but Dorfman said these were less likely to be an ADA violation given the context. They also hit differently than the winter-weather question, which made me uncomfortable and lowered my self-confidence.
It took nearly two years of freelancing, working at a health nonprofit to pay the bills, and applying for dozens of jobs before I was able to find my current role as an editor at HuffPost. Everyone I work with knows that my disability strengthens what I do as a journalist. But not all disabled people are as fortunate as I am.
For employers looking to make the hiring process smoother, here’s one bare-minimum solution: Employers can let all candidates know what the hiring process entails and ask if they need any accommodations in order to participate. It helps normalize these basic steps, empowers candidates to speak up about what their needs are, and eases some of the burden they might feel in bringing it up first.
But that’s just one step toward the ultimate goal of creating an overall disability-inclusive workplace. An organization could publish an annual demographic report showing progress in diversifying its workforce — but that also means cultivating an environment where disability isn’t shamed and people feel comfortable enough to self-identify as disabled if they wish. It means providing access not out of fear, but rather out of an understanding that disabled people make workplaces better and more innovative. It means proactively working with all employees to figure out what they need to succeed, rather than assuming what certain people can and can’t do.
When these inclusive actions take place, disabled people can feel confident that not only is a job the perfect fit, but their employer is, too.