I have a disability, and a very noticeable one at that. At a young age, I was diagnosed with a mild form of Cerebral Palsy. Most people will see that my gait is a bit wobbly as a result of this neurological disorder. While my cognitive abilities are unaffected, I have trouble with balance, muscle flexibility, and overall leg strength. If we’re ever lucky enough to meet up, please don’t ask me to carry your iced coffee back to the table—I promise you it won’t end well!
As you might imagine, I face many daily obstacles, and my personal differences are ones that most people may never have to deal with or experience in a whole lifetime. But there is one thing I have in common with everyone else: I need to work. But more than that, I want to work. I want to excel in a job that's meaningful and that I’m passionate about day in and day out. Why should my disability prevent me from having that experience?
The truth is that today, one in five people have some sort of disability, ranging from Cerebral Palsy to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to Asperger’s. While the symptoms of some disabilities are visibly noticeable, others become evident, or manifest themselves in certain situations. For example, a co-worker diagnosed with Asperger’s might visibly struggle to focus during a lunch meeting in a noisy cafeteria, but that same person working diligently and uninterrupted at his desk will likely complete more work in that hour than others do all morning.
So, how do those of us with a disability address our unique situations when interviewing for a job alongside the other 80% of applicants who don’t suffer from a disability?
Employers look for people who exude confidence in their abilities, can perform the outlined tasks, and will fit with the company culture. When you check all of those boxes and are the one to address your disability, you're setting yourself up for success. Here's why:
1. It Puts the Room at Ease
Chances are, your interviewer wants to ask questions if your disability is undeniable. It's natural; we're curious human beings. But because ADA prohibits her from doing so, if you don't bring it up, you're both going to be staring at the elephant in the room. Since my disability becomes noticeable the moment I enter a room, I choose to acknowledge it at a time that feels appropriate during the meeting.
I want to hopefully make the other person more comfortable and also demonstrate that I'm at ease with what I've got going on. I recommend breaking the ice and starting the conversation when there's a point in the interview for you to do so (more on that below). By addressing it head on, you remove any potential awkwardness and you allow everyone to focus on how awesome you are as a candidate.
2. It Shows Confidence in Your Ability to Succeed
There’s that word again. Confidence. Lead the conversation by disclosing that your disability produced a character strength that is unparalleled in any of the other employees, and, thus, you'll prove your immediate value should become part of the team. I remember one interview where I mentioned that my CP had rewarded me with a thick skin. I’m rarely affected or discouraged by negative comments, difficult scenarios, or potentially unwelcoming environments. I explained, “I even respond well to constructive criticism!”
This admission actually worked in my favor, as the job I was applying for involved a tough Fortune 500-corporate environment, a position that meant overhauling the supply chain process it had been using for years and introducing an entirely new method to its employees. The organization was looking for a candidate who could persevere through challenging tasks and maintain her cool in stressful meetings and workplace situations. If you can find a way to link your disability with a strong work trait or characterization—“My ADHD has really helped me to think creatively about solving various types of scenarios”—you’ll likely draw an impressive nod. You want to be remembered for your confidence and direct approach, not your inability to be candid and open in a first meeting.
3. It Instantly Connects You With People in the Room
My inclination to open up about my disability allows me to connect with the people in the room, making my time with the hiring manager or senior leaders sincere and relevant. With me, it’s never just a dry, impersonal interview where you’ve spouted off about past accomplishments and how you’d be an asset to the department. It’s more like a meaningful conversation between two people wherein I’m clearly demonstrating my value and skills beyond the standard format. Avoid getting lumped in with the rest of the candidates by forming a connection early. Addressing your disability demonstrates your honesty, something which few interviewers will frown upon.
Now you’re probably wondering how to actually bring up your disability, especially if it isn’t noticeable off the bat. Aim to casually work it into the conversation. My favorite segues are the ever-popular questions you’ll be asked like “What are your strengths?” or “Why should we hire you?” These are perfect opportunities to bring up the positive connotations of your disability, ways that it’s molded your personality, and how it’s shaped the way you approach life’s scenarios. Waiting for these types of questions is far more effective than randomly shaking the interviewer’s hand and blurting out, “Hey, I have Cerebral Palsy. Didn’t you notice?”
Once you’ve mentioned it, move on—or insert an anecdote about how it’s positively played out in your professional life where it makes sense, but don’t dwell on it. Allow your past experiences and specific qualifications to speak for themselves, without your disability informing the whole meeting. You’ve worked too hard to let anything besides your strong background and resume get all the attention.
Photo of man getting ready to interview courtesy of People Images/Getty Images.