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Interviewing a person who has a disability

Interviewing Persons with Disabilities

If you're a manager, recruiter, human resources (HR) specialist, or key company decision maker — chances are you'll be conducting interviews at some point! Prospective employees may come from all over the world and will have different values, beliefs, and backgrounds. Modern companies know how important it is to have a diverse, inclusive workforce: it's not only the right thing to do, but it holds some unique (and measurable!) business benefits, too.

Part of this diversity should be inclusive to persons with disabilities, of course! But we should acknowledge a reality, one that shouldn't cause shame but rather draw attention to an opportunity. This reality is that many non-disabled persons conducting employment interviews may not feel 100% comfortable interviewing a person with a disability. They may not know what they should or should not say or what they should or should not ask, for example. These concerns show a respect for persons with disabilities and a desire to be more inclusive. It's the perfect opportunity to go over some of the basics!

Focus on Ability, not disability

The individual coming to the interview is a person with hopes, dreams, drive, and personality; they are not defined by their disability. Rather, as an interviewer, it's best to focus on what the interviewee can do: their strengths and skills. In other words, you are interviewing a person, not a condition!

Be wary of personal bias

We will stress again that this guideline is not intended to point out a character flaw or focus on the negative. Rather, it simply acknowledges that as humans, we can tend towards biased thinking, even if it's not what we intend. It's key to remember that biases aren't always something we are consciously aware of, and that they can be stealthy or not easily detected. The best thing to do is to be consciously aware of how you are viewing each candidate, and that you aren't classifying them as "disabled candidate" or "non-disabled candidate." Candidates are simply candidates, and it's up to you to determine if their abilities suit the position!

Avoid making assumptions

Assumptions are a dangerous thing, and doing this in an interview is no exception. For example, it's not safe to assume that if the candidate "appears" to be non-disabled, that they do not have a disability of some kind — not all disabilities are immediately visible or perceivable from meeting someone for the first time. Conversely, one should not conclude that an individual with a visible disability, such as a mobility-related issue that can be visually seen, will not be able to perform the duties of the job.

Disclosure of a disability

Generally speaking, an applicant who has a disability is not necessarily required to disclose their disability to the employer. This decision is up to the individual, although some say that it is an ethical decision to disclose — one that is beneficial both for the applicant and prospective employer. As an employer, it's important to keep in mind that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. Employers cannot ask prospective employees if they have a disability, or the nature/severity of the disability. The EEOC and DOL both provide specific information regarding the ADA's guidelines on this.

What if an interviewee discloses their disability ahead of time?

It is very possible that the candidate may disclose their disability ahead of the interview. If this is the case, be prepared to make reasonable accommodations for the interview. Don't be afraid to kindly and politely ask how you can help!

Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA states that, from the interviewee's point of view, "an employer can ask if you can perform the duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation." In general, the concept of a reasonable accommodation is any change or adjustment to a job or the work environment that allows a qualified individual to perform the duties required by the job. The EEOC page on the Americans with Disabilities Act defines this in more detail.

Use proper terminology, or simply ask

This is a guideline that — no matter what — will be somewhat fluid! There is no definition for what terms an individual may prefer, but there some generally accepted "dos and don'ts."

  • Always put the person first, e.g., "person with a disability" as opposed to "disabled person."
  • "Non-disabled person" is used as opposed to "able-bodied" or "normal"
  • Phrases such as "bound" or "confined" should be avoided, e.g., "person who uses a wheelchair" as opposed to "wheelchair-bound."
  • "Suffers from" has generally been replaced with "has," e.g., "person who has [condition]" as opposed to "person who suffers from [condition]"

Again, the truth is that every individual may prefer certain terminology, and even some terminology that has generally been replaced may not be viewed as offensive by some. It's not only acceptable, but encouraged, to kindly ask the individual what terminology they prefer.

Words have an impact

Beyond accepted terminology, words and phrasing matters. Pay careful attention to how your frame your questions and thoughts. Here's an example to help explain, using a hypothetical applicant who uses a wheelchair. Think of how the question "Will your wheelchair slow you down as you move through our building?" sounds so much different than "We'd like for our building to be as wheelchair-friendly as possible; can you suggest some changes that would help?"

Personal space

This is a good guideline for interviewing anyone! Be cognizant of and respectful for a person's individual space. If it doesn't feel right to shake hands, for example, then don't. Some individuals may be uncomfortable with touching or standing too close. For individuals who use wheelchairs, it's advised to not touch or lean on the wheelchair during the interview (it's not a toy, and yes, this does happen from time to time!)

Service animals

While it may be tempting, don't pet or fawn over an interviewee's service animal — no matter how cute they may be! Think of the service animal as being at work, which in fact, they are! These animals perform a valuable service, and they should not be distracted from their duties. Not to mention being passed a treat without permission, of course. If the interviewee introduces the animal, gives permission or encourages you to acknowledge them, you can act appropriately.

Speaking and introductions

Here is an example where a non-disabled person should "step outside" of their own perspective for guidance. Keep in mind, for example, that someone may be lip-reading. A good general guideline is to make eye contact as appropriate, speak clearly, at a comfortable pace (not too fast, but not artificially slowed-down either) and at an audible (but not shouting) volume. If the applicant asks you specifically to speak louder or at a different pace, then you can adjust as needed!

Asking about assistance

Never offer an interviewee something like a cane or wheelchair unless one is requested, as this can be seen as making assumptions about the person's Ability. It is sometimes acceptable to offer reasonable assistance; however, be prepared for the interviewee to reject this assistance. If you are told no, it's important to respect the individual's wishes and carry on with the interview!

Keep respect and kindness top-of-mind!

Finally, it's very important to note that guidelines are just that: guidelines. What is best for each interview, individual, or situation can be difficult to predict.

But, a good rule is to always respect each and every candidate and be kind — whether they are a person with a disability or without a disability. Kindness and respect leads to understanding, and if it flows both ways, will help to contribute to a smooth interview process for all candidates.