By Donna Bungard

The shifts to skills-based hiring and the impact of COVID-19 on remote work and other ways of working have helped lower employment barriers for people with disabilities. In fact, many within the disabled community became leaders during COVID-19, helping their teams navigate barriers and consider work differently. And the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the employment rate for people with disabilities inched up during the pandemic – from 19.1% in 2021 to 21.3% in 2022. 

Trends are less promising in the UK, however, where employment rates among people with disabilities dropped sharply at the start of the pandemic. However, numbers quickly increased during 2021 and the first half of 2022, nearing pre-pandemic levels. From July to September 2022, the employment rate was 52.6% for workers with disabilities, compared to 82.5% for workers without disabilities. 

As Senior Marketing Accessibility Programme Manager at Indeed, I believe that unconscious bias and long-held misconceptions about people with disabilities still influence the hiring process too often. So it’s important for employers to acknowledge three common myths about all people with disabilities – myths that only serve to reinforce those barriers to employment for the disabled community. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to access this often untapped talent pool of creative thinkers. 

Indeed’s Senior Marketing Accessibility Programme Manager Donna Bungard

Myth No. 1: disability means 'lack of ability'

Many of us cringe a bit when asked the old interview question, 'What’s your greatest weakness?' We prepare, strategise and try to answer in a way that’s self-aware but not damaging. But what if, instead of being asked that question, someone were to assume they knew what your greatest weakness was and how it would impact your performance – and then stopped considering you for the job because of their assumptions?

For many, that’s exactly what happens when they disclose (or are unable or unwilling to hide) their disability. The truth is, a person's condition may not even have a direct impact on the role they’re applying for. And disability is not some monolithic thing. There are huge variations in what it means to have a disability and how that might impact someone’s professional experiences and capabilities. 

The disabled community and its allies recognise that the barriers they face aren’t coming from them but from the way we’ve built society. As the late disability rights advocate Judy Heumann said in an interview, 'Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.'

For hiring professionals, then, the goal is to focus not on an applicant's disability but on their abilities, just as you would with any candidate.  

Myth No. 2: accommodating people with disabilities will be expensive

Though many organisations want to do more than simply follow the legally mandated accessible practices outlined in the Equality Act 2010, managers may still worry that accommodations can create a financial burden or inequity among employees. 

But did you know that the noise-cancelling headphones you may already use are considered an accommodation? Do you already offer flexible work schedules or abilities to work remotely? Those are accommodations, too. 

The best way to learn which accommodations are needed is to simply ask someone, 'What are your access needs?' at the start of a new professional relationship.

And consider this: the power of diverse teams has been proven again and again, which means the benefits received from providing accommodations far outweigh their costs. 

Also, keep in mind that accommodations for people with disabilities often benefit employees without disabilities, too. 

Curb ramps on footpaths are a classic, often-cited example. They benefit those who use a wheelchair – as well as elderly people with walking frames, parents pushing babies in buggies, and others. Less-cited examples, such as sharing meeting agendas in advance, enabling captioning on video calls and recapping specific actionable items and expectations, not only help members of your teams who have disabilities, but also help to build inclusion and belonging among all remote and hybrid teams. 

Myth No. 3: your job posting templates are inclusive of people with disabilities

It’s common for organisations to have a job description template that is a starting point for new postings. These typically have standard bullet points such as 'must be able to lift 15 lbs', 'phone screening required' and so on. 

Unfortunately, such job descriptions may inadvertently cause people with disabilities to self-select out of the application process. Here are some tips for making your job postings more inclusive for those with disabilities.

Avoid ableist language. Focus the wording of your job descriptions on what you truly need someone in the role to accomplish. For example, does the candidate really need to work a full 40 hours each week? Or could the right candidate complete the work in fewer hours? Do they need the ability to sit for extended periods of time? Or is there an option for a standing desk?

It’s easy to slip into ableist language without intending to. When your job posting says candidates should be ready to 'jump' into projects, for instance, do you simply want them to get excited about those projects? If your job description says you want someone who is 'well spoken', do you truly need them to actually speak? Or does the ideal candidate just need the ability to communicate effectively? 

Other examples of ableist words and phrases to avoid include 'stand up' when you actually mean 'participate in short meetings' and 'hear' when what you’re really asking the candidate to do is be open to receiving new information. 

Other ways to attract candidates with disabilities

On your job posting, allow people to apply through multiple channels – by email, phone or online application. This enables candidates to use the communication method that’s best for them. 

If you already offer flexible work schedules, organise an employee resource group (ERG) dedicated to accessibility practices or other disability-inclusive practices. And mention them in your job posting. Doing so shows that you expect – and value – applicants with disabilities.

Hiring and disability: the mutual meeting of needs

Systemic barriers have been identified for all underrepresented groups, including the disabled community. Learning to recognise bias in our processes can facilitate change systematically. Updating templates, normalising the process of asking about access needs and focusing on what needs to be accomplished – rather than how it’s accomplished – can build disability inclusion into your day-to-day practices. This can have a positive impact on your employees who do not have a disability, too. Overall, inclusive practices can lead to an increased sense of belonging, which can be the foundation of your company’s culture.   

Among all underrepresented groups, the disabled community is the largest, according to the United Nations. It’s also the only underrepresented group that any of us can join at any time. Most of us will experience a disability in our lives; it’s a normal part of the human experience.

Simply put, both hiring and disability-inclusive practices are about the mutual meeting of needs. Your organisation needs talent that can fill a position; talent needs an employer that will meet their needs. There’s exceptional talent out there ready to have a positive impact on your team. By building disability-inclusive practices into your processes – and by overcoming common myths about people with disabilities – you’ll be set up to tap into this often-untapped talent pool.