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Inside Higher Ed

Hiring managers and search committees have the challenge of developing job descriptions, as well as recruiting, vetting and hiring the candidate who possesses the best mix of knowledge, skills and abilities for the vacant position. Applicants have an equally difficult task of convincing the search committee that they are the right candidate who will excel in the role. And although the hiring process is a challenging task for anyone seeking professional employment, it is especially true for those with disabilities.

For starters, not all job openings have inclusive descriptions, which discourages individuals with disabilities from applying. Then, if they go ahead and apply anyway, they must grapple with the difficult question of if and when they will disclose their disability and how the potential employer may respond. And they must do this while simultaneously navigating the dynamics of the hiring process, which is not always inclusive and presents multiple roadblocks.

Indeed, our own experiences as two professionals in higher education living with disabilities, as well as those of other academics we know, reveal a growing lack of consideration for candidates with disabilities when it comes to job searches. The reality is that disability is not viewed as a characteristic of diversity, equity and inclusion, and thus perceptions and personal bias continue to impact the representation of disabled faculty at colleges and universities.

We know firsthand the trials of navigating hiring practices that were not intentionally designed to be accessible. So we’ve written this essay to share a few insights about the barriers in the hiring process and to offer guidance on how college and university leaders can integrate equitable hiring practices in higher education with accessibility as a priority. Doing so will encourage the inclusion of all people who can bring important diverse perspectives that will ultimately benefit their institutions.

We base a lot of our recommendations on principles of Universal Design for Learning, a framework derived from architecture that applies the concepts of universal access to the classroom. Universal Design consists of practices that implement multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression. While it is most often implemented in the context of teaching and education, it can also be effectively used to improve interviewing and hiring accessibility.

Stigma and Bias

The discrimination that individuals with disabilities receive based on the belief that they are less capable than able-bodied individuals is known as ableism. In the higher education professional setting, ableism does not typically occur overtly—it usually happens in a more covert manner through stigma and often unconscious bias. Ableism is embodied in attitudes, actions and policies that exclude people with disabilities, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Clear examples of ableism are when events or materials are inaccessible, making it impossible for individuals with disabilities to fully engage. In the higher education setting, however, ableism presents itself more often as microaggressions, stereotyping, lack of representation and inadequate accommodations. Well-intentioned professionals commit acts of discrimination when they ask inappropriate questions, make assumptions about people's limitations, and dismiss or ignore requests for accommodations—creating an unwelcoming environment for job candidates with disabilities.

Such candidates can experience a multitude of barriers throughout the hiring process, starting with job descriptions. Unfortunately, when those job descriptions are not intentionally inclusive, they can de facto exclude people with disabilities by erecting unneeded barriers related to cognitive, physical or sensory disabilities—such as by including unnecessary language or excluding information about beneficial resources.

Lived Experiences

As higher education professionals, we have been on both sides of the hiring process. Our perspectives as individuals with disabilities motivate us to create inclusive job descriptions when we serve on hiring committees or make hiring decisions. Job descriptions are the first opportunity for candidates to get a glimpse of the company culture, and when they are not intentionally inclusive, disabled candidates like us take notice. As we are searching for jobs and come across an interesting position, we read the details, and if the information in the job description is not inclusive, it raises red flags.

An example is when a posting for a position mentions physical demands that require the candidate to stand for extended periods of time or lift 20 to 50 pounds. Language such as “standing” excludes people who may not have that ability, and throughout our tenure in higher education, not once have we had to lift that heavy amount of weight as an essential part of a job.

One of us, Amanda, has found some tenure-track postings have contained other exclusive job requirements, such as the need to hold a valid driver’s license even though no essential duties listed required driving. Another post emphasized the ability to read and write print. In an era of advanced technology, why is writing print an absolute?

We’ve also noticed discriminatory language that highlights a preference for certain characteristics that can be contradictory to specific disabilities. Language stating “seeking energetic individuals” or “must be able to remember multiple tasks without assistance” can create limitations for people like the other author of this piece, Nicholas, who has a cognitive disability.

As an individual with a traumatic brain injury, Nicholas has experienced other intentional and unintentional discrimination when applying for jobs. In interviews, before disclosing his disability, he’s heard interviewers say that they were excited to hire someone who required no additional support or assistance. After disclosing it, interviewers have treated him as if he were no longer capable to meet the demands of the job. People are typically surprised when he discloses that he has a disability, because he doesn’t fit their mental image of a person with one.

For Amanda, navigating the hiring process as someone who is blind has presented even greater challenges. She has not only had to prove herself as the best candidate, but also demonstrate how she would be able to successfully meet basic job expectations. Her ability to effectively convey the course content is not the primary focus. The real question is, is she able to use her assistive technology to teach the course in a way that emulates able-bodied professors? Instead of asking what accommodations she needs to be successful, she is queried on how she will mitigate her disability. Even with years of experience her field, and a Ph.D. from a highly-ranked university, her skills and abilities relevant to the job have not been scrutinized as closely as her skills and abilities as a disabled person.

Determining when to disclose her disability has often created a quandary for Amanda, as well. Before Zoom interviews with deans and other college administrators, she has agonized whether or not she should mention that she is significantly visually impaired. In the end, she has always decided it’s better to disclose her impairment in advance than to risk having the interviewer wonder why she did not notice something or didn’t quite make eye contact. When scheduling on-campus interviews, she has had to share that she travels with a guide dog, as the person picking her up at the airport or taking her to dinner might not prefer to have a dog in their car.

Over the years, we’ve come to understand the varied societal perceptions of people with disabilities—anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the typical potential employee box. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, promise an “equal opportunity,” but the struggle to access that promise is real. The conventional medical perspective on disability—which characterizes it as an impairment or deficiency requiring correction—continues to perpetuate the negative perceptions of people, including employers, of those who have one. In fact, convincing the search committee that our abilities outweigh our disabilities has often felt far more challenging than the interviews in general.

Practices for Search Committees

What can and should be done to create a more welcoming workplace, whether in person or online, for people with disabilities? Institutions should shift to a universal design for workplace mindset, providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression so the recruitment and hiring processes becomes welcoming to everyone. In that spirit, we’ve listed some accessibility do’s for search committees to consider based on our experiences and those of other disabled colleagues.

  1. Ensure that your company’s application and interviewing procedures comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the ADA’s employment provisions. The section of its Web site titled “Disability Discrimination” provides access to resources that can answer employers’ questions about how to ensure their hiring process is inclusive of people with disabilities. For instance, the act prohibits asking disability-related questions before a job offer is made.
  2. Check that application forms, employment offices and interviewing locations are accessible to people with a variety of disabilities. Follow federal guidelines and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure your websites and online content take into account visual, auditory and cognitive diversity. Share digital documents in multiple formats—Word, PDF, HTML—to allow applicants to access and use the assistive technology of their choice. Also allow applicants to choose in-person, phone, online or video interviews based on preference and accessibility. If the interview is in person, ensure the space is physically accessible for wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Use closed captions in all video and online communications.
  3. Explain in detail the search and interview process to all applicants ahead of time so they can request reasonable accommodations. Applicants with visual impairments may need assistance in completing paper forms. Those who are deaf may ask for a sign language interpreter to facilitate communication. Those with cognitive impairments may request specific instructions on portions of the interview process in advance. Allow candidates plenty of time before their interviews for them to identify their needs and for you to respond to them.
  4. Focus interview questions on the job qualifications, not the disability. Ask an applicant with disabilities to describe how they will successfully perform tasks and meet job requirements just as you would any other applicant. Treat the individual with the same respect and hold them to the same standards. Ask only job-related questions that are relevant to the functions of the position for which the applicant is applying.
  5. Concentrate on the applicant’s technical and professional knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences and interests. Do not try to imagine how you would perform a specific job if you had the applicant’s disability. Trust that they have mastered alternate ways of living and working and that they know what they need to perform tasks and be successful. This article from the U.S. Department of Labor provides some useful interview guidelines and considerations.
  6. Continuously evaluate your search process for accessibility, legal compliance and best practices. Consult resources such as:
  • Job Accommodation Network: a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) that provides information on job accommodations for people with disabilities, as well as the employment provisions of the ADA and related legislation.
  • ADA National Network: Regional centers sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research that provide ADA information, training and technical assistance across the nation.
  • Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion: a service from ODEP that connects employers seeking workers with qualified candidates with disabilities and offers technical assistance to employers on issues relating to hiring and employing those individuals.
  • RespectAbility: a nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with employers, elected officials, policymakers, educators, self-advocates, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, philanthropists and the entertainment and news media to fight stigmas and advance opportunities.

To sum up, most hiring practices in higher education today are not equitable for a substantial portion of potential candidates. Barriers, due to inaccessibility in the hiring process for individuals with disabilities, discourage these well-qualified and capable individuals from applying and being hired. Unconscious ableism, job descriptions that are not intentionally inclusive, unclear language with accommodations and the challenge of choosing when to disclose their disability can be significant barriers for individuals with disabilities when on the job search. Implementing the suggestions that we’ve outlined for recruiting, vetting and hiring candidates can help make that search process much more accessible and inclusive of all qualified applicants.

The fundamental truth is that accessibility is more than just compliance. It’s a reflection of an institution’s culture and commitment to social justice. For higher education to have a diverse and productive workforce, we must ensure the hiring process is intentionally inclusive and accessible for everyone. Creating an equitable hiring process for all individuals will attract more highly qualified candidates and greatly strengthen the institution.

Nicholas Lamar Wright is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Human Development Institute at the University of Kentucky. He identifies as a multiracial man with a disability and has published qualitative research in the Journal of College Student Development, Genealogy and various chapters in academic literature focused on multiraciality, sense of belonging and disability. Amanda Lannan is an assistant professor in the visually impaired, teacher preparation program, and the faculty director of the Plans to Achieve Transition program at the university. Her perspective as a blind individual, educator and researcher brings a synergistic approach to STEM research involving individuals with disabilities.

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