Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Job Search - A Disabilities Question

A couple posts ago, I got a great question from Nitewriter.  I don't have any great answer, alas, but I wanted to put up the question and the responses it's already gotten, so more people have a chance to respond.

Here's Nitewriter's question:
I've been asked how one brings up disability issues during the application/interview process. I have invisible disabilities but it doesn't much matter because I work full time online teaching. I don't have to go to campus to teach classes; in fact, none of the colleges where I teach are even in my state! Still, there are applicants who have disabilities and wonder how/when to self-disclose. Any suggestions? 
Here, in order, are the responses (If I miss one, let me know, please.):

from Susan:
I don't think I would bring up disability issues during the interview process unless an accommodation of some sort is required for the convention interview (I'm thinking here in terms of English processes, obviously). The people on the search committee aren't necessarily the people who will actually know anything about accommodating disabilities, and in general I think it best to use the convention interview to focus most closely on the job-related issues that will help you move to the campus visit. I could imagine that you could actually get some very wrong answers from a search committee about disability issues.

I would self-disclose the issues on an as-needed business in terms of what you need to interview successfully (so if you need a chair during a presentation or need interview locations close together because of a mobility impairment, e.g., ask for that). If you get a campus visit, you should get asked if there are any particular people or offices you want to meet with, and perhaps ask then for some time with the registrar or access office or whomever might be a useful resource (although it can be hard to figure that out from afar).

It might be helpful to reframe the issue here not so much as "when should I self-disclose" but "what information do I need to know about this dept/campus?" and work back from there (who has that info, and when do I need it?) . It's not like the search committee needs to know about anyone's disability. But candidates dealing with a disability might need info about the campus--so is that info necessary before accepting a campus visit? is it info necessary while arranging logistics of a campus visit? or it is info that you need while weighing a job offer?
Nitewriter responded:
Susan, I appreciate your thoughts. That all makes a lot of sense. In my case, the disability is mobility-related and, while I can for short periods of time, hide it (i.e. walk normally, stand for certain periods of time, even walk up or down stairs), on a daily basis, working full time would necessitate mobility aids which make the disability quite obvious to all. 
And Susan later responded:
Nitewriter, I have been thinking more about my response to your question. My partner, also an academic, has a mobility impairment that makes it difficult for her to stand for long stretches of time. She did a campus visit once that did not result in a job offer. During her job talk, she ended up sitting down on the table at the front of the room, and some people in the dept thought this was very unprofessional. She later wished that she'd mentioned to someone that she couldn't stand that long and would need a way to sit (although as I type this, I end up thinking "really? you didn't like that someone sat at the front of the room?"). So I guess that sort of thing might be a reason to self-disclose. And also a reason to wish for more generous interpretations of others' behavior. 

 I found Susan's responses really helpful, especially in thinking about reframing the issue.  I'm no expert on disability issues, so I really appreciate hearing from those who know more.

My thought is about me and other not-yet disabled committee members, and adds support to Susan's response.  I think the fear I have, and maybe others have, in hiring a disabled colleague would be the very selfish fear that I'd have to do extra work.  I fear that because I already feel pretty much at the edge of what I can do. 

I know and I'm sure my colleagues know that discriminating based on disability is illegal.  But I think that may mean that we'd hide our fears in the way that racists have long made racist decisions but tried to convince themselves and others that the decisions aren't about race.  I think my critical thinking about race is further along than my critical thinking about disability.  I have work to do.

Meanwhile, I'd say that Susan is on the mark in her suggestion about first waiting to self-disclose until you have the campus visit, and then framing it in terms of having a successful campus visit.  I think I and my colleagues would respond reasonably to a request to sit during a talk, for example, and positively if you framed your sitting as not only a way to deal with mobility, but also as having to do with thinking about classroom strategies and not being the "sage on the stage" type of teacher.

I think my colleagues and I would be reassured if we saw a candidate give a strong talk, and do strong interviews, and that would reassure us about our workload fears.

Finally, I'd like to second Susan's comment that most search committee members will be clueless about disability issues and how our campus can work to be open to everyone (I'm trying to get at being more than just accessible, but more; like the different between tolerating and respecting, I guess?).  I, for example, don't think the restrooms on our floor are accessible, and I'm not sure where the closest accessible restroom is.  But now I'll make sure to look around a bit more carefully.

Now I'd like to ask your help.  First, if you have thoughts to add in regards to Nitewriter's question, please share.  And also, as I go off to figure out where our accessible restrooms are, what else should I look for and think about that I don't usually?

Imagine, for example, that we invite a candidate to campus with a disability, say mobility, or specify some other disability.  What should I know as a matter of course that I probably don't?

Now I'm going to go walk around and find some accessible restrooms.


  1. "Accessibility" varies depending on the type of disability. Example: many new restrooms don't have doors, but twisty passageways to enter, so that views are blocked but no one has to push/pull a door (also a hygiene feature, since you don't have to touch the handle everyone else touches). But my mother, who had Parkinson's, could walk fine in a straight line and could manage doors, but changing direction was very hard for her.

    Nonetheless, doors can be tricky. Where are the handles, what type of handle, how heavy is the door, is there a button to press to open the door automatically? The bar about which you think "oh you can just lean on that" may injure the hip of someone with a disability; a handle with a lever to depress may be difficult for someone else. Depends on wrists and hands.

    Stairs, obviously: are there elevators or ramps?

    Sinks in the washrooms: how do the taps work? The best is the kind that run if you stick your hands under the faucet. Push-down or turn handles are hard for people with hand problems.

    Distances around campus, especially in bad weather, as it often is in interview season in the north. Do you expect to show a person the campus on foot, and what will you think of someone who can't keep up or begs off? Consider that there are ways around the expectation that people will run around from office building to classroom building to library. For example, I have a friend whose library arranged to deliver the books she requested to her office. Are classrooms in the same building as your offices?

    Verticality of the campus: flat may be easier, but if there are grades, how steep are they? Would they be navigable by a wheelchair or scooter?

    Are sidewalks kept free of snow and ice in winter

    Is there handicapped parking near your building?

    Microphones: if a candidate has difficulty speaking loudly, or loudly enough in a large room, can you provide amplification?

    Visual impairments: how large and clear is signage around your campus?

    Ms Mentor discusses disabilities in both of her books; this can be useful from the point of view both of candidates and of interviewers.

    People with physical disabilities are usually good at creative problem-solving: they've been coping with their impairments for awhile, and know what works. Ask them.

    And BTW, the disability communitity distinguishes between "impairment" (the physical manifestation) and "disability" (the social/cultural effects of the impairment). In the right environment, a person with significant impairment need not experience any disability.

    Thank you for thinking about these things, and good luck to Nitewriter.

  2. One thing that I think search committees can do is simply be open to the concept that candidates have needs of all sorts, and be clearly open to soliciting feedback from the candidate. When I invite people to convention interviews, one of the things I will do is send an email explaining who's on the committee attending the convention and how we will approach the interview. I will also ask whether there is anything we can do in order to make the interview an accessible experience (need to figure out a better way of putting it). When we set up campus visits, I will ask each candidate whether there is anything in particular we need to be aware of as we schedule the visit and whether there are any particular sorts of experiences they want to have while on campus--so that people who want to, say, connect with environmental studies folks on campus b/c they do environmental rhetoric can ask for that, people who are interested in LGBT issues can ask for that, people who want to talk to people with engineering connections can do that.

    One of the things I've learned living with someone who manages multiple chronic medical conditions is that we don't all move through the world at the same speed or in the same way. There is such a power imbalance in the job search; making it as easy as possible for someone to say "you know, it takes me a long time to walk between buildings so I'd appreciate a campus tour by car" is important. So I guess I will ask each candidate, as we arrange the campus visit, whether they are OK walking around. Maybe they will all say yes, but it opens the possibility for someone to say "you know, it's hard for me to walk that far in an hour."

    I also think we should provide a draft schedule for a campus visit to a candidate and ask "does this look OK to you?" That again opens the possibility for someone to request adjustments as needed.

  3. Last year I did a conference presentation at a university that had older buildings on campus. Unbeknownst to me, my presentation was scheduled in one of those buildings. There was no elevator and my presentation room was on the third floor. I had no choice but to take the stairs. There are times when I simply cannot manage stairs but fortunately I was able to do so on that day (of course I paid for it for a week afterward with joint pain).

    It never occurred to me that a public building would not have an elevator. So I never asked. I'll not make that mistake again.

    If I were to interview on a campus somewhere, I think that my inclination would be to take my cane and use it while on the interview visit. When using an assistive device (cane, scooter, wheelchair, crutches, etc.) people know upfront that there is a mobility issue. They cannot legally ask if it's an injury or disability. And someone using a cane will never be asked to do a lot of walking.

    Just some random thoughts about going on interviews. I really like Susan's approach.

  4. Nitewriter, the cane/device idea is one of Ms Mentor's suggestions, too. It allows the person with assistive device to take charge of the situation and direct the conversation.

  5. Since our campus is new, everything is designed to be accessible, but there are some long hallways. (And I always wonder what happens for our students in wheelchairs when the elevators break.) We always ask about needs, but I think not expecting impairments. Dame Eleanor's list is extremely useful.

    Our big trip up is that our nearest airport is about an hour away, and some candidates can't/don't want to drive. When that's the case, we either organize the train (not good connections, but it works) or if we can, someone drives to pick them up.

  6. Thanks for this discussion, all, and especially for explaining the "impairment"/"disability" difference. I love when the blogging community educates me.

  7. richard4:05 PM

    Thank you for using the phrase "not yet disabled." I first heard that a good fifteen years ago from a friend of mine in the accessible technology field, and have used it ever since. Using it in presentations really seems to make the audience take accessibility issues more seriously.

  8. Thanks for commenting, Richard. I find "not yet disabled" really helpful in keeping me thoughtful.

  9. what a great discussion! i love framing mobility issues as "not yet" a challenge we all have.

    susan -- how thoughtful to be accomodating of those who can't or won't drive that distance.

    one other thing i can think of is to schedule or offer breaks. for example, one of my friends has insulin-dependent diabetes -- and he is absolutely fine with it on a normal schedule, but he needs to check his sugars and to eat regularly -- so marathon sessions are a problem for him.

    happy thanksgiving!