Securing gainful employment as a professional with a disability has improved in recent years, but biases and barriers persist.
Recalling past job interviews, Darrell Hilliker, now an accessibility and support engineer at Salesforce, says the hiring process with many organizations remains a “mixed bag” for people with disabilities.
“I've been to a lot of job interviews, where it's clear that it's not going well,” he explains. “There's a challenge with a lot of factors, such as whether and when to disclose your disability, and how to disclose it. You have to be really careful about that.”
Hilliker continues that professionals with disabilities still have to “do as much as you can to sort of prove yourself” before disclosing their disability or asking for accommodations.
Several decades since awareness surrounding disabilities began to get mainstream attention, professionals with disabilities have reasons to be optimistic, while acknowledging that many barriers and forms of discrimination linger in the workplace.
Recent Legislative Progress in Accessibility
By most accounts, the American disability movement launched in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Era. Seeking greater accessibility and an end to centuries-long discrimination, advocates and allies of the disabilities community helped force the passage of several key pieces of legislation:
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited the use of federal funds to discriminate against persons with disabilities.
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was amended in 1998, requiring federal information be distributed electronically to enhance accessibility.
- The American Disabilities Act of 1990 went even further, to codify many essential protections on behalf of people with disabilities, including such things as building codes requiring businesses, schools, and government structures to have elevators and ramps, making large print textbooks available in schools, and more.
Legislation is a key vehicle for change in the workplace, but employers need to go beyond compliance with laws to transform their cultures and practices, as well.
More Businesses Are Prioritizing Accessibility
While vital legislation is in place—and has much further to go before realizing its lofty aspirations—cultural and economic transformations have been happening across the United States.
For instance, the expansion of remote work options have become more commonplace, bringing a bevy of benefits to professionals with disabilities. Remote work removes many transportation barriers, such as navigating less-accessible public transit. More disability-friendly work environments are made possible with work-from-anywhere policies, for example, by removing office distractions that might disrupt the concentration of someone with a learning or cognitive disability.
In general, office cultures have made progress, as well, in part, by establishing accessibility initiatives or offices of accessibility to address exclusionary practices and barriers.
A senior digital accessibility analyst at Salesforce, Crystal Preston-Watson believes their office of accessibility is thoroughly committed to ensuring everyone can participate fully in their products, regardless of disability status.
“They want to make products for all of our customers,” she says. “There really is that focus and drive to make sure everyone can bring their full self to their job, and be able to do their job without any sort of hindrance or wondering why they can't access this or that.”
Many organizations have proliferated to advance the interests and concerns of professionals with disabilities, such as Fable—a testing platform dedicated to helping others develop inclusive digital products, and a trusted partner of many large corporations, including Slack, Shopify, and Walmart.
Similarly, the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT), a nonprofit founded in 2013, is focused on shrinking the employment gap between professionals with disabilities and their non-disabled peers, specifically within the blind or visually impaired community (BVI).
There weren’t as many organizations supporting these movements a decade ago, let alone large businesses prioritizing greater accessibility and inclusion in their work cultures. Now, accessibility is a key part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, impacting businesses globally.
Changes have clearly been made, but much more work needs to be done.
Accessibility & the Workplace Going Forward
With many opportunities for improvement, we’re seeing some encouraging trends in accessibility and the workplace, including more inclusive hiring practices and accessible interview processes.
For instance, employers are asking potential employees to list any accommodations they may need. Not only does this remove exclusionary barriers, but signals to potential job candidates an organization is serious about accessibility and inclusion. Professionals with disabilities can be assured that asking for accommodations isn’t going to be held against them in the hiring process.
In the wake of many offices transitioning to remote work, interviewers are adopting more accessible practices, such as access checks, ensuring everybody can communicate clearly with each person on the call—whether via sight, sound, or captioning. Employers are shifting away from panel interviews, which can be overwhelming for people with certain disabilities and have few, if any, additional benefits compared to one-on-one interviews.
Furthermore, exhibiting a bit of grace during video interviews goes a long way in acknowledging the awkwardness of the process, especially for people in the neurodiversity community.
“I think that there's this preconceived notion that when you're interviewing, you're making eye contact, and you're really engaging,” says Jessica Roth, work manager in Salesforce’s Office of Accessibility. “That's challenging for anyone to do right virtually, let alone someone who is neurodiverse.”
Tragically, more than 60% of working-age Americans with disabilities remain unemployed, per a 2020 unemployment survey from the National Council on Disabilities.
However, by making hiring practices more inclusive and the interview process more accessible, organizations can better attract and retain professionals with disabilities, dramatically reducing this employment gap, and ensuring vital insights and contributions from the disabilities community are acknowledged and celebrated.