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Erin discusses her experiences of recruitment as a person with Multiple Sclerosis. She sheds light on how taxing the process can be: do I and when do I disclose my disability? Erin's lived experience provides clear lessons for researchers to consider when recruiting participants to usability studies.

Inclusive recruitment and disclosing disabilities

By Erin Tilley (10/08/2022)

I have recently been involved in a conversation around the kinds of questions asked of disabled new hires, and it has reminded me of the different experiences I have had.

Having worked in 3 countries (Australia, France and the UK), I have witnessed different treatments and expectations of both workers and employers when it comes to employing and onboarding staff with various disabilities – all this from both a disabled worker perspective and the perspective of a hiring manager and departmental head.

In general, across the board, the approach to hiring disabled workers and ensuring their onboarding is smooth is very similar – requesting if any reasonable adjustments need to be made, reporting on these to a central or outsourced occupational health department and then... leaving it with them to handle.

Applying for a job is stressful for anyone and, oftentimes, the application process can be quite confusing and daunting. When you are disabled the question of “do I disclose my disability?” is real, particularly when the disability is hidden (mental health, chronic illness, etc.) and not immediately obvious. In my case, as someone with Multiple Sclerosis, my illness can and does affect me differently every single day, and I am often unable to predict how I will feel. This means that I can become very ill at very short notice – which may be seen as unreliability by some employers. For this reason, at times in the past, I have not disclosed my disability during the interview process to avoid any potential bias against me. This has meant that I have attended interviews for which I did require adjustments but decided it would be best to just grin and bear it rather than potentially risk not being interviewed at all. (Yes, it’s illegal to discriminate against disabilities, but it happens and can be explained away by other reasons – not meeting core requirements, etc. Anything to avoid the hassle of potentially having a disabled staff member).

Upon receiving a formal offer, at that point I feel more comfortable disclosing my illness – somewhat – because I know that once I do, I will have to run the gamut of occupational health and potentially deal with a very stressful and invasive process.

Sometimes Occ Health departments are internal but, increasingly, it seems this service is being outsourced to companies that “specialise” in such activities. In my experience, in 3 such cases of outsourced Occ Health, this results in a generic questionnaire which can be quite daunting to fill in, followed by a phonecall with someone who may, or may not, have any medical experience. They ask a series of questions that appear to be on a checklist, many of which are extremely intimidating and intimate. I have been asked such questions as…

  • Will you require additional breaks and, if so, why and what will you do in those breaks that justify the need for extra time?

  • How does your condition affect your sex life? (I answered that one with a two-word phrase not often used in polite society and ended up having that offer withdrawn due to “budgetary reasons”).

In short – it's always stressful and while it can result in some adjustments being made, at times it just creates more tension for the new hire and makes them wonder if their employer is a) going to regret hiring them and b) start looking for ways to fail them during their trial period.

So how can this be made better for the new hires, whilst also ensuring that necessary adjustments are reported and made? Add a bit of humanity to the whole process. Remember that you are hiring a person, not a robot with a fault that needs to be reported and fixed. Consider that for a lot of disabled people, new situations are daunting enough and having to also navigate the emotional stresses of invasive and impersonal questions whilst trying to prepare for an interview or starting a new job can be completely overwhelming. Ask your new hires how they would prefer to report on their disabilities and ask if a conversation is acceptable to them – for some people actively talking about their disability is harrowing and will not be helpful at all, and for others filling in forms will not be helpful. Adjustments should include adjustments to the hiring process and how you collect necessary information to ensure the welcome and transition are as smooth as possible.

About Erin

Erin Tilley is an Australian/French PhD Researcher and Librarian. In a previous incarnation, she worked for large multinational companies in the fields of computer gaming, music and communications. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2015 and is a strong advocate for accessible and considered disability services in education and the workplace.