Why No One Will Hire Me

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I've seen the awkward stares and the compassionate smiles, and I've heard the reassurances and words of encouragement. I've also read the letters and taken the phone calls: I'm sorry, but we've found someone else to fill the position.

Although discrimination in hiring the disabled is illegal, as codified in the Americans With Disabilities Act, it nevertheless occurs. I am a case in point. I'm a one-legged man, and I can't get a job.

In February 2005 I lost my leg to cancer, a sarcoma on my right tibia. I walk with the aid of a prosthesis and a cane. I can walk, stand for prolonged periods, go up and down stairs, and drive a car. By trade, I'm a writer and editor -- office work. I have more than 23 years of professional experience. I have an impressive portfolio and have won awards.

Yet employers will not touch me.

That last statement is not bitterness but experience. For nearly a year, after I was laid off as staff writer for a Washington-area association, I've applied for hundreds of writing and editing jobs in Washington, Baltimore and the surrounding area. I've had more than a dozen face-to-face interviews. They have all resulted in the same state of affairs: I don't have a job.

Here's how it typically works: I respond to a newspaper or Internet employment notice with a cover letter, résumé and writing clips. The human resources person calls me for a telephone interview. She is impressed with my résumé and clips; she gauges my interest; we set a time and date for an on-site, in-person interview. As I hang up the phone, my expectations are high. They like me! I'm on my way to getting a job!

When I show up at the employer's office, my expectations begin to lag as the receptionist sees me walk with my cane as I approach her desk. She is momentarily taken aback by the man with a limp, but she quickly screws a warm smile onto her face. In the reception area, I'm met by more warm smiles, and then I'm invited into an office.

The interview goes well. They say they are impressed with my past work. They outline the job responsibilities, ask questions, answer my questions. It is a pleasant encounter.

Then, I follow the advice I received from my job counselor -- I bring up the subject of my disability. The thinking is this: It is illegal for a potential employer to ask an applicant about a disability. If I don't bring up the subject, I will leave the interviewer with doubt in his mind. He can see by the way I walk that something is wrong with me, but he won't necessarily know what. No one will hire a person he has a doubt about.

So I broach the subject: You've noticed that I walk with a cane. That's because I have an artificial leg. But I can assure you that it does not interfere with my ability to do my job.

Oh, no, no, no, say the interviewers emphatically. That has no bearing on our hiring process! You would be hired on the strength of your skills and talents. A physical disability doesn't have anything to do with the job.

At the end of the interview everyone shakes hands, and warm smiles and assurances abound. They show me to the door, I go home, and a week or so later, I get a letter or a phone call: Thank you for your interest, but we've selected another candidate. Good luck in your career search.

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