How to Deal

Make a Habit of Educating Interviewers About Disability

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; 5:23 PM

Lily, I have an uncommon question for you:

Four years ago, when I was 24, I had a stroke. It was spontaneous and unexpected. As a result, I have trouble with muscles, both interior and exterior, as well as motor skills. One of the muscles that was damaged was my vocal chords. Although you can understand all the words that I am saying, they are a bit slurred and slow. It is obvious to others that I have some sort of problem, although I don't always explain what it is.

I have gone on several interviews, and although I know that it is a competitive market out there, I am under the impression that the reason I am not getting chosen as a candidate is because of my voice. I have a college education in Spanish Studies and have been told by many people that the ability to speak Spanish is a great asset. However, I can tell that although employers say that they are ok with my voice, they are uncomfortable with it. I am not applying for unrealistic jobs such as a person who speaks publicly, but I do have management experience and am willing to start over again at an entry level position. (Again, I am often not chosen, because of my slower typing speed.)

I have also used Disability Services to try and find a job. After my initial interview, their assessment was that my case was not severe enough for immediate help, yet I could go on a waiting list. Here is my dilemma: My case is not severe enough for immediate assistance in finding employment, but when I try to apply without assistance, employers seem to not accept my voice. Although others say that they are sure that this does happen, I can see the look in the interviewer's eyes. Although I don't want to believe that this is happening, it still hurts when it does. I also know that first impressions are key when interviewing, and with my voice I do not make that. I try not to be negative about it, but after it happens so many times, it gets discouraging. What is acceptable for me to say in my case? I have strong skills and know that all of the jobs that I am applying for I am qualified for and would do good work. But, a lot of times, people associate my voice with an inability to do good work. What do you suggest that I do? I have been applying to several jobs for about 8 months. Any advice that you could give would be helpful.

When you meet someone for an interview, take control of the situation by explaining up front why your voice sounds the way that it does. After the handshake, right after you have sat down to talk, take a few minutes to tell your story:

"Before we begin, I wanted to explain to you why my voice sounds like this. About four years ago, I suffered a stroke. As a result, I have sustained some damage to certain muscles of my body, including my vocal chords. That is the reason why you might notice that my speech is a bit slurred and slower than you might expect. I like to explain all of this to interviewers when they first meet me because I do not want you to wonder what the sound of my voice means. Thankfully, my stroke did not at all impact my mental abilities or dampen my enthusiasm for my work, and I am very excited to talk to you about the ____ position."

A skilled interviewer will understand that this is their cue to ask you whether you would need an accommodation to be able to perform the duties of the job. This is what they are required to do under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when a job applicant reveals that he or she has a disability. I do not know based upon what you have told me whether your condition would actually entitle you to protection against disability discrimination under the ADA. However, you should be aware that it might and that, in any event, sharing information about the consequences of your stroke might prompt a prospective employer to inquire about what help you might need should you be hired.

Being frank and sharing information about your condition will answer the inevitable questions in the interviewer's mind about the sound of your voice. Eliminating the mystery will also help to keep any subconscious opinions from forming in the interviewer's mind about what your voice indicates about your abilities. I do not mean to downplay the challenge that you face. You will undoubtedly encounter interviewers who will make assumptions about your abilities based upon your voice, or who will be biased against hiring you just because you sound different. But, if you make a habit of educating interviewers about your condition, you will find that many will listen to what you have to say with interest and admiration and will be able to look beyond first impressions to the valuable skills that you possess.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, June 10 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail hradvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit and publish submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. The information contained in this column is not intended to be legal advice.


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