Disabilities in the Workforce Part 2: How PWDs Can Help Land the Job They Want

Hello, readers, and welcome back for the second post in the series regarding persons with disabilities in the workforce. Last week, we talked about preparation for the workforce–adequate education, appropriate life skill practice, shadowing opportunities, and so forth. Now we’re going to talk about what happens when the person with a disability is ready to go out and land that first job. How can he or she make sure to not only get hired, but to keep and enjoy the job and advance when the time is right? Let’s look at a few key tips.

Be your own advocate. Because of the way “the system” works, a lot of PWDs get into situations where they’re dependent on Vocational Rehab and job coaches to get them jobs. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Vocational Rehab and services like it. These services were created because a need existed. Unfortunately, that service is often misused. People with disabilities aren’t allowed to speak for themselves in terms of jobs. Instead, the job coach, the Voc. Rehab worker, what have you, goes to the employer and says, “I have a worker for you, but he/she has X disability, so…”

Right away, the potential employee looks incompetent. Right away, the employers’ concern is not what the person’s strength is, but how needy he or she is and how much this employee will cost to keep on. This is highly disturbing to me and makes me angry.

I understand that some PWDs will need help finding jobs, but the situation outlined above is not the ideal. So if you have a disability and you’re looking for a job, be your own advocate as much as possible. Don’t let somebody else set up the interview or attend the networking event for you; you are the one who needs to be there. Once you’re there, express strengths before disability. Talk about the benefits you bring to the workplace culture, not just modifications. It’s your job, not theirs.

Have the proper equipment and know the lingo. Unless your disability precludes all but the basic reading and writing skills–and if that’s true, you still deserve a fulfilling job–then you should know what a resume is, how to write one, and how to go over it with an employer. More schools are going over this for both TAB students and students with disabilities, which is great. Yet, many special education programs still skimp on this because they assume PWDs can only be hired for menial work, and who needs a resume to be hired to wash dishes, right?

Wrong. You need some form of a resume. It can be traditional, listing education, degrees, experience, and so forth. If you have a cognitive disability or significant educational gaps, you might need help from a parent, teacher, friend, or Voc. Rehab counselor. I emphasize help–do not let them do it for you! Craft something that talks about why you want this particular job, what you think you can bring to the workplace, and why you’re a good worker.

Additionally, know what the job entails and what is expected of you. For example, I wouldn’t be a good freelance writer if I never put keywords in my work or paid attention to word counts. I couldn’t write fiction if I didn’t know what point of view was or what character development looked like. The same is true for almost any job, even the most simple-looking. For example, let’s say you have a cognitive disability and have been hired to shelve books at a library (moving away from food, filth, and flowers here). Do you need to know the Dewey Decimal System backwards and forwards? Maybe not, but you certainly need to know what goes where and how to properly shelf. You need to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction and possibly other genres. Or, let’s say you’re a member of your volunteer fire department. You need to learn to suit up and get out the door quickly, and take orders from your captain in a dangerous situation. You might need to know the difference between classes of fires, or how to tell what started a fire.

Prepare for interviews. I cannot emphasize this enough, because the interview is where you sell yourself. It’s where you’re met face to face and have to build some kind of rapport to catch the interviewer’s attention. So with this in mind:
-Practice ahead of time. If possible, talk to someone who already works where you want to work, and ask them what an interviewer might want to know. Practice interviewing with that person, or another person you trust. Ideally, school should have somewhat prepared you for this, but you may need to do your own research because even the best career service programs fall short sometimes. And as we know, career services for “special needs kids” often don’t exist. (UGH).
-Set your own interview time–and then show up on time and prepared with resume and other material you may have been asked for. It’s okay if you need help setting up the interview or if someone comes with you–but this should only be done when necessary. Do NOT send a parent, therapist, or job coach in your place, or lean on them to speak for you.
-Go in there like you own it. Beforehand, fill your mind with positive affirmations that you can do this–because you can! Smile. Shake hands as firmly as possible. Stand or sit as straight as possible–I say this because personally, I tend to lean forward a bit for balance. That’s okay. Focus on projecting an image that says, “I’m here and I want to be hired,” not, “I have a disability and am embarrassed of it–please let the floor swallow me now.”
-Answer questions as well as you can. If you need clarification or for a question to be repeated, ask. It’s better to ask than give an answer that doesn’t fit.
-Thank the interviewer for his or her time. It shows you appreciate their effort and are a polite, mature person.

A word on eye contact, sensory issues, and other things that may disrupt interviews: Some people, such as those with autism and Asperger’s, often find getting jobs difficult because they naturally do things that “typical” people consider rude. Remember you’re not being rude–you’re being yourself. However, to put everyone including yourself at ease, be up front with what your interviewer may see. He or she legally can’t ask a question like, “Do you have autism?” But if you introduce yourself and then casually say, “I have autism/Asperger’s, so please don’t take it personally if I don’t look at you”–that can help tremendously.

Dress, groom, and act appropriately. You want to be comfortable, but you also want to dress the part. Ladies, this means a dress or skirt (at the knee or below), or nice slacks and a blouse or other professional top. Guys, this means khakis or other non-blue jean pants and a collared shirt or button-down. You may or may not have to wear a tie; if you’re not sure, call ahead and ask. Show up wearing polished, professional shoes. If you have sensory issues, know what clothing quirks set them off. Is it itchy linen? Leather shoes that pinch? A certain type of sock? Apprise someone you trust of these things, and have them help you find or choose something professional, yet comfortable.

Grooming and acting appropriately are a bit self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised at how many TAB people actually don’t do this. For example, ladies with long hair, you may want to pull it back depending on where you interview. Don’t wear any glittery or overdone makeup. Avoid clothing that wrinkles easily even if it’s comfortable. Guys, wear a belt, tuck in your shirt, and don’t wear jewelry or piercings. And for heaven’s sake, both genders, don’t show off any tattoos. Some employers are cool with them, but some aren’t, so err on the side of caution.

“Acting appropriately” is kind of loaded for PWDs. So many of us have been taught that “appropriate behavior” means sit down, shut up, and comply with everything you’re told no matter what you think. Well, that’s not what appropriate behavior really means in school, and it’s not what it means in the job market. So keep these things in mind:
-Ask questions when you need to–but alert the interviewer first. Say, “Excuse me” or “Can I stop you/ask about that?”
-If you’re not sure whether to say or do it, don’t. For example, don’t ask the interviewer anything personal, or change the subject in the middle of the conversation. Don’t call the interviewer by his or her first name unless asked (even if you’ve heard this person prefers first names, as sometimes happens). This is where practicing comes in handy.
-If at any point you feel uncomfortable, you can and should say so. You can say, “I’m sorry; can we come back to that?” or, “I don’t want to answer that; it’s too personal.” If you feel an interviewer has asked an illegal or otherwise inappropriate question, it’s fine to make a polite excuse and walk out.
-Stimming or dropping eye contact is okay if you need to; just alert the interviewer before it happens. Also, don’t consciously use stimming or coping mechanisms to avoid questions or answers.

I could probably write an entire book on this, but hopefully, that’ll get you started. Remember: you belong in the workforce and can succeed there, at jobs you actually want and enjoy. Come back next week when we’ll be talking about workplace culture–how to feel confident in your new workplace, make friends, and enjoy yourself.

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