The Engineering Career Center recognizes that students with disabilities face unique challenges during the job search. Likewise, employers aren't always sure how to incorporate disability-friendly practices into their hiring process. Below are resources to help both students and employers understand their rights, responsibilities and options when it comes to disability in the workplace.
Students with Disabilities
First, it's important to recognize that a disability isn't always physical, and you may not be aware that a person has one. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as a physical or mental health impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Many of these, like diabetes, depression, anxiety, autism and sensory and neurological conditions may ot be apparent to others. Temporary impairments may also meet the definition of a disability.
A review published by the National Institutes of Health in 2018 highlighted many benefits of hiring people with disabilities, including less turnover, employee loyalty, innovation, productivity, work eithic and safety. People who live with disability often bring creative problem-solving to the workplace, helping a company find new ways to incorporate accessibility and universal usability into their products. Those on the autism spectrum are known for being skilled at detail-oriented tasks.
Career planning for students with disabilities is much the same as it is for students without a disability. It's important to visit your career services office to discuss your goals and learn how to highlight your strengths when talking with employers. It is especially important to participate in career exploration events, which can help you identify opportunities that fit your goals and abilities, as well as companies that proactively support disability hiring. This is also a great time to practice self-advocacy. If you would like to meet with a career advisor, or need an accommodation to attend a career fair or other career services event, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to consider qualified applicants with disabilities. However, you must still be able to meet the employer's requirements for the position. You have to be able to perform the "essential functions" of a job either with or without reasonable accommodations. As an applicant, you can ask for accommodation during the application process. This might include receiving written materials in an accessible format, modifying the application or interview process or asking for additional time to complete an interview component. Though disclosing a disability is a personal decision, if you realize you need an accommodation to participate fully in the hiring process, you should contact the hiring manager right away. This can be done verbally or in writing.
Employers should take steps to consider in advance how they could make their application process more friendly to people with disabilities, make it easy for applicants to request an accommodation and ensure all interview locations and materials are accessible. For example, if you are doing video interviews, ensure the platform you use is compatible with screen reading software. Making a contact email address and/or phone number available so applicants can reach out for additional assistance may also remove a barrier to application. Giving candidates a detailed list of activities for the application process can reduce stress for candidates on the autism spectrum and others.
Some students with disabilities may need to spend extra time preparing for the interview. For example, people on the autism spectrum may need extra coaching to understand and answer interview questions. Practicing body language, eye contact and intonation can also be helpful. The Engineering Career Center offers a friendly, encouraging environment in which to practice your interview skills.
Employers should consider modifying their expectations for social behavior in interviews. An applicant who has difficulty making eye contact may not be avoiding you; the interaction may simply be too overwhelming. Likewise, someone with a halting speech pattern or monotone delivery may communicate very well in written situations. It's important to assess the applicant's ability to perform the essential functions of the position rather than their presentation.
Both employers and students should be aware of and avoid asking illegal interview questions.
Deciding whether to disclose a disability to an employer is a personal decision, and can be done on a need-to-know basis; you are not obligated to share information with your entire team. You may choose to disclose if:
- You require reasonable accommodation in order to perform the essential functions of your job.
- Your job performance is suffering because of your disability, and you want to give your supervisor an explanation. (For example, an MS flare may leave you more fatigued and less productive than usual.)
- You find co-workers are uncomfortable or unaccepting of certain characteristics of your disability. (For example, vocal tics associated with Tourette's Syndrome.)
If you choose to disclose, select a private place in which to have the conversation with your supervisor or HR manager, be prepared to answer general questions about your disability, and, if you need accommodation, prepare a list of reasonable requests and how they would help you. Requests can be made verbally or in writing.
Employers are legally required to consider all requests for reasonable accommodation as well as the employee's preference, but have the latitude to choose alternative accommodations as long as they are effective.