Career advisers told me to hide my disability on applications, but being open and turning it into a strength helped me get a graduate job.
“Dear Employer, I’m James, a mathematics graduate from the University of Bath, who’s not able to do things which most people can. My biggest weaknesses include …”
This is clearly not the best way to start a CV or job application, although it is exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I disclosed my disability applying for a graduate job.
I am clearly not alone. Recent research conducted by MyPlus Students Club has noted 77% of disabled applicants were fearful of disclosing their disability in case of discrimination.
I have cerebral palsy, a physical disability I’ve had since being born 11 weeks premature. Due to my disability, I walk with two walking sticks, can only walk short distances, and have trouble balancing unaided. My life has been a constant adaption to the norm. I went to a specialist primary school before being integrated into mainstream education. I went through my childhood not having the ability to ride a bike or play football; thus I spent my time at adapted youth clubs and playing disability sport. I drive a car with adapted hand controls instead of conventional pedals. These adaptions and adjustments have become commonplace in society, though the working world is often seen as being steps behind.
My biggest fear when applying for graduate roles was that my disability would mean I’d be phased out or not considered to be up to standard. It is an incredibly difficult position to be in. How do I accurately, yet positively, portray my disability? When, if at all, do I disclose my disability to my potential employer? And, how can I be sure my disability doesn’t affect my ability to do my job, especially once I’ve been hired and I’m in the working environment for real?
I work for EY, a professional services firm I’ve been with for four years, since joining as a graduate in 2011.
Looking back, there were three pivotal steps to my success when securing my first job:
1. The application form
The first tip I was given by careers advisers, which should be ignored, is “do not disclose your disability”. This lack of openness appealed to my fears of discrimination and was the obvious, easy choice. Not disclosing, however, really restricted my options when application forms started to ask for examples, such as:
Examples of times when I’d worked in a team
Examples of times when I’ve overcome a challenge
I had limited myself: my wheelchair tennis or multilevel orthopaedic surgery were clearly great examples that I now couldn’t reference. I ended up hiding the true me.
Suffice to say, my application to EY was one of the few where I was completely open. This decision was made easier by being presented a text box in which I could write about my disability, rather than just a box to tick.
2. The interview
The second tip I ignored was the ignorant phrase that if the application form was where you ‘talk the talk’; the interview is where you ‘walk the walk’. That’s not quite the right advice to give a physically disabled candidate.
I recall part-time job interviews I failed in after hiding my disability on my CV or application form. I ended up feeling incredibly uncomfortable during the interviews since, as the panel had only just realised my disability, conversation inevitably turned to how it may impact my ability to perform the job. It quickly became apparent that the sooner I was open about my disability, the sooner the employer could consider reasonable adjustments and see past my potential disadvantages. I suppose I was better off not gaining that bartender job after all.
I used my interviews instead to show the true me, with shortcomings that I was aware of, and development points I knew I could strengthen. It seems that suffering from a disability can give you a tremendous level of self-awareness which shouldn’t be ignored.
Being open also allowed me to make sure all the necessary adjustments were in place for a fair interview, such as a suitable chair and accessible facilities.
3. The career
The final tip, the one I use every day, is this: make sure the role you’re applying for allows you to be the best you can be. This matches my experiences perfectly.
Being open throughout the recruitment process and now with my colleagues and co-workers, means I can continue to be at my best. I can continue to live an (adapted) working life, and I can be proud of each of my successes.
My disability has started to enable me to make a difference. Working for a multinational firm I’ve been able to promote disability awareness on a larger scale, and, through their support, I’ve been able to raise thousands of pounds for charity and advertise the abilities of disability.
There is still a long way to go. Disability is such a broad definition, and a disability can affect each person in such a variety of ways, but that, in my view, is even more reason to continue to broadcast the best things about disability.
While my four years of working life have not been plain sailing, they have shown me there are no barriers to success which can’t be overcome. I wish I could tell my newly-graduated self that I should have had confidence in my potential employers, and confidence in myself. Recruiters want to hire real people, with real experiences, and having a disability means you have a unique perspective, an inherent ability to overcome adversity.
Next time when someone asks me whether to disclose my disability, I will respond confidently:
“Dear Employer. I have a disability. It doesn’t completely define me, it just enhances me in a way which differentiates and strengthens me. My disability should be viewed as an ability: to see the world in a different way.”