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12 of the biggest challenges people with disabilities face when pursuing an office job

INSIDER logoINSIDER 8/20/2019 Lindsay Mack
a group of people sitting at a desk in an office © Shutterstock
  • Insider spoke to a variety of individuals who have different disabilities to highlight some of the biggest issues and types of discrimination that they face in the workplace.
  • Even well-meaning colleagues sometimes treat their co-workers or employees who have disabilities differently or put them into uncomfortable scenarios.
  • Generally, treating those who have disabilities with respect while also making the reasonable and necessary accommodations they may need can help make a workplace more inclusive and welcoming. 

Many people who have disabilities can face a variety of challenges when job hunting, going on interviews, and working an office job.

To get a more in-depth look at this issue, Insider spoke to individuals who have a variety of disabilities and who work in many different industries. Their candid stories highlight the ways employers can continue to improve when it comes to hiring and working with people who have disabilities, both visible and invisible.

Here are some of the biggest challenges individuals who have disabilities sometimes face in the workplace.

Some people only see the disability

Tiana Ferrell, who has the congenital abnormality known as symbrachydactyly, has a left hand that did not fully develop. Ferrell said that even though she is a professional with a master's degree, sometimes people only see the disability.

"An immense challenge I face on a daily basis is being reminded that I am 'different,'" Ferrell told Insider. "I am constantly stared at, pointed at, and told that my hand is 'weird.'

"I have even had a human-resources executive jump back and look frightened when she saw my hand. If you don't feel safe in the HR office, then you can't expect your other co-workers to respect you either," she added.

Necessary accommodations are not always easy to get

© Shutterstock

Not all employers are willing to make reasonable changes for employees who have disabilities.

"When it comes to requesting unique accommodations for my disability, that presents another issue," explained Ferrell. "If I need additional time to complete a task, as the only finger I can type with on my left hand is my thumb, I am told, 'If we do it for you, we must do it for everybody,' or 'Figure it out.'"

Ferrell goes on to explain, "Employers should realize that special accommodations aren't an inconvenience, but add value and improve efficiency. It is no different than adding a stepstool in your kitchen to help you reach the top shelf. We all need 'accommodations' at some point, even the able-bodied."

She pointed out that reframing the way employers think about accommodations may help out all employees at a company.

Sometimes accommodations need to be changed to fit a particular situation, but colleagues and employers don't always understand this distinction

That said, making accommodations for someone with a disability is not always a "one and done" type of deal.

"As a deaf person with some residual hearing and some speaking ability, I have often been placed in situations [where] people make assumptions about me," said Chris Soukup, CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), one of the largest deaf social-impact organizations.

"They assume that because I can communicate with them in a one-on-one setting that I will have no trouble following along in a group meeting without an interpreter or that I can comfortably use the telephone with just about anyone. These assumptions are inaccurate - I get lost easily trying to follow a group conversation in spoken English without an interpreter, and I have never been able to comfortably participate in a conference call without interpreting support or access to text captioning," said Soukup.

"Many deaf people have similar experiences where what works fine in one setting or circumstance will not be effective in another," Soukup told Insider.

In a business environment, this means that different situations may call for different adjustments and accommodations. In the end, though, it's all about making sure all employees are able to communicate effectively and comfortably.

There is a tremendous amount of diversity in the disabled community that often gets overlooked

Two people with the same disability can have radically different ways of addressing it, but employers sometimes fail to work with each person on an individual basis.

"In the deaf community, there are some people who identify as deaf that communicate exclusively using spoken English, some who communicate exclusively using American Sign Language (ASL), and some who will use both depending on the circumstances," said Soukup. "Some deaf people can lip-read, but many do not. Some deaf people have auxiliary aids and cochlear implants, and many do not."

Again, it's important to respect each person's requested accommodations and personal preferences in the workplace, especially when it comes to communication.

Even when necessary workplace accommodations are offered, sometimes co-workers make derisive or insensitive comments about them

Sometimes workplace accommodations, even relatively minor ones, can attract unwanted attention from colleagues.

"My computer has a magnifier setting that I use to magnify the screen 200% bigger," said Jennifer Renée, who is legally blind. "When co-workers see how big my screen is, they make comments about how they need glasses, too. They say my screen looks loud and they don't know how to look at it."

Sometimes when disclosing a disability, co-workers have a disrespectful reaction

Ferrell said she acknowledges that the weird, rude reactions to a person's disability often come from a place of ignorance and are not usually meant to be malignant. Still, it's not something anyone should deal with in the workplace.

"I have learned that often times people say asinine things because they just do not know what to say. If you don't know what to say, you should be taught not to say anything," said Ferrell, who suggests companies provide sensitivity training to prevent potentially disrespectful situations.

Disabilities that aren't visible can come with a new set of challenges

Not all disabilities are immediately apparent, and this can create a unique challenge for employees and job seekers.

"I have been stopped during interviews because of the way I talk (usually fast and lots of hand gestures) and [have] not given the opportunity to finish the interview, creating an unfair situation whereby I was never in a position to be considered for the job," said Robin Young, who is now CEO of Fitness Savvy. "The largest issue I have is that my disability is not visible. I have ASD (autism spectrum disorder)."

Young said he recommends businesses provide more workplace support for those who have unseen disabilities.

"To create better working environments, employers and businesses must identify and manage disabilities from the start," said Young. "For people with invisible disabilities such as depression and autism, companies can provide more support and access to resources."

Making reasonable adjustments, such as allowing employees more time to talk or encouraging them to work on social skills, may help these employees, Young told Insider.

Even people with established, positive working relationships can get tripped up by the unwelcome judgment of a disability

"My agency specializes in franchise brands that are based all over the U.S., so my main contact with clients (and reporters) is done online through email or on weekly phone calls - aka not in-person. The reason I call this out is because I have a physical disability, cerebral palsy, and most of the people I work with don't know I have a disability until they meet me in person at a conference or annual meeting," said Chelsea Bear, who works at a public-relations agency based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"Initially, individuals are always caught off guard and often display a state of shock or behave awkwardly not knowing how to address the 'situation.' I completely understand - I'm human and would probably react the same way," said Bear. "And, I know that I do not need to let my disability be my identifier in my ability to perform my job successfully.

"The reality is, my disability has absolutely nothing to do with the work that I produce, but for some reason, I still feel defeated dealing with unknown reactions and unwelcome judgment that stems from the travel and in-person interactions that are required of my job," she told Insider.

However, Bear does speak highly of the people who do work with her on a daily basis, saying they have even provided her with a parking space directly in front of her office building so she doesn't need to walk far once she arrives to work.

Several people with disabilities told Insider that they oftentimes feel underestimated by their employers and co-workers

a person holding an object © GaudiLab/Shutterstock

"I think the most challenging thing has been proving my capabilities," said Jennifer Bright, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She currently works as an administrative assistant.

"I have struggled with this in every aspect of my life. I think people have a tendency to assume I can't help out so they don't ask," she explained.

Even well-meaning colleagues can put a person with a disability in an uncomfortable position

Sometimes a colleague's attempt to help out can be a bit misguided.

"I occasionally use my white cane and when I walked into the office one day, my co-worker saw me and put her hands on my shoulders to move me around the chair, which I was able to see just fine but she thought that she was helping me," said Renée. In general, people should not touch a cane user if they didn't ask for help, although asking whether they need help is fine, explained Renée.

On other occasions, colleagues will bring up their own vision issues in an attempt to bond with Renée, but this type kind of conversation can fall flat. "I think when other employees find out that I have a disability, they should not make comments about their own vision problems that are nothing like being legally blind," said Renée.

There are definitely better ways to bond with your co-workers, such as by asking questions about their interests.

Jobs that require travel can sometimes present unique challenges for some people with disabilities

"One of the challenges I face is getting left out of the actual production of the show because of how difficult it is for me to travel," said Kara Hale, a person with cerebral palsy who works as a virtual assistant for a web-produced series.

"I am a full-time wheelchair user and would require a companion to travel with me due to needing help with simple tasks." Because of this, Hale said she is not always able to go on work trips and is sometimes concerned about missing out on important information about her job.

Some individuals said they have had to work twice as hard as others to prove their worth as an employee

a person using a laptop computer © Shutterstock

For some people, proving their worth is a constant (and ultimately unnecessary) ordeal.

"I have profound bilateral hearing loss, which means I am considered hard of hearing," said Ebony Watson, a freelance creative director who has done work as a certified deaf interpreter on VH1's "Black Ink Crew." "It means the only thing that I can't do like others is hear without the assistance of hearing aids, American Sign Language, lip-reading, or sometimes interpreters. Everything else, I can do the same as other people."

However, Watson said her capability is sometimes overlooked.

"There have been many occasions when people have assumed I can't do what they can or they have assumed I can't do a specific task. I have had to work twice as hard to show that I can do the same tasks and that I deserve the same treatment and opportunities as my peers," she added.

Although Watson said she is more than capable of proving her abilities, she said this kind of treatment gets exhausting.

"On a personal level, I wish people would not label me as 'just' a hard of hearing person and then treat me as if I'm irrelevant, simply because of the mechanics of my ears," Watson told Insider. "While those moments are when I have to roll up my sleeves and show them they are wrong, it gets tiring having to prove myself on a daily basis."

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