You’re sitting in a restaurant with your family. You’re 25 and a college graduate. The waiter comes to take your order, and when it’s your turn, he takes a look at you, ignores you, and looks to your parents to order for you.
Seems a little rude, doesn’t it? Believe it or not, this happens to me frequently when I go to a restaurant.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy, and while I walk differently and speak a little slowly, my cognitive functioning is not impaired in the slightest. Cerebral Palsy does cause shakiness, particularly in my right side, it impacts my speech, and walking in large crowds of people can be a bit treacherous due to the unsteadiness in my right leg. Certainly, I have my limits, but I can find a solution or alternative way to do just about every task in my life.
Perhaps the hardest thing, though, is that living with a disability means also living with the assumptions people make about you: In my case, people usually assume a physical disability automatically equates to severe cognitive disability.
For this reason, ever since I was very young, I have always wanted to work for myself, knowing that the most accommodating employer I could ever have would be me. I knew that living with a physical disability and finding a job would prove to be difficult, as it is for any new college grad, but I also know that the unemployment rate for people with a disability is double or triple the rate for those without.
Having started my own company, I need to hire employees, and I want to make sure I am as accommodating for others as I am for myself. If I hadn’t pursued my personal dream of starting my own business, I know there are certain things that I would have been passionate about finding in an employer.
For those organizations hiring an employee living with a physical disability, it is important to understand, from the beginning, that the candidate is not defined by his or her disability, and should be treated as their own person.
There are certain things to look for in a company when living with a physical disability, and there are definitely characteristics to consider in an employee that has a physical disability. For the most part, though, it is as much about fit as with any job candidate.
To accommodate an employee living with a physical disability, it is crucial to understand the candidate’s capabilities and to recognize what accommodations, if any, may be needed. Don’t be afraid to ask, as not every person living with a disability faces the same challenges or has the same needs. There are a wide variety of products that make things like typing, for example, easier and more efficient for someone living with a physical disability.
Apart from mandated ADA standards, adapting your office with wheelchair-friendly desks and supplying employees with inexpensive adaptive office tools like specialty scissors and writing utensils, typing aids, magnifiers, and talking calculators are simple solutions that can make everyday tasks much more efficient for your employee.
When considering a job candidate that is living with a physical disability, remember that you are also hiring a huge asset to the company. Typing speed matters when you are looking for a typist or filling a data input position, but if the skill set calls for some creativity, he or she can often offer an entirely new perspective on the things that able-bodied employees may take for granted.
This perspective and long practiced ability to adapt to everyday tasks can inspire new ideas and prove that there is a solution or alternative for most situations, if you think about it in a different way. It is also important to recognize that every employee you have, able bodied or not, excels in some areas and lacks in others, and it is the areas in which they can excel that really matter.
Hiring an employee living with a physical disability is not fulfilling some kind of quota or checking off a box to showcase company diversity. People living with a disability are experts at overcoming obstacles, and it will show in their dedication to their work.
When you do hire someone living with a disability, then it must be into an inclusive, welcoming environment. Existing employees are usually completely accommodating if they have the opportunity to understand the type of disability the candidate is living with and the appropriate ways to interact. Both the candidate and the company need to be prepared to discuss these issues openly.
In my case, I may just need assistance with tasks involving fine motor skills; there is no need to speak to me more loudly or slowly, but I realize some people won’t know this automatically. There are professionals to help with these kinds of transitions, if needed, and their help can make the experience much more comfortable for everyone, as ultimately, your new employee will not want to be treated differently based on his or her disability.
There are certainly a lot of things to consider when hiring someone living with a physical disability, but both parties can plan in advance to make the transition easy. The possibilities are truly endless, and I hope sharing these tips has inspired someone living with a disability to go for that dream job, or a company to take the leap and give that candidate a chance, despite the fear of what the unknown may bring.
Personally, I am looking forward to finding some great employees!
—Justin Farley is the founder of UNlimiters, a website community and mainstream marketplace created by those living with disabilities for those living with disabilities, with the ultimate goal of helping its customers live an unlimited life.
[Image: Flickr user zeevveez]