As he approached me in the hallway, the stranger who was to interview me remarked casually, "It's amazing how well you get around."
Not only did his remark reveal an unverified assumption about me (that impaired vision negates my mobility); it also seemed to reflect a greater interest in my disability than in me .
Another interviewer put her hand on my back as she ushered me into her office.
Again I bristled.
Why? Because I prefer to ask for help when I need it.
What a pleasant surprise when a third interviewer offer no unsolicited help but instead asked matter-of-factly, "What visual aids will you require for his job?"
Job hunters with disabilities are apt to encounter the kinds of "condescension" described in the first two interviews, be it well-meaning or deliberately provocative.
Another potential roadblock is "labeling." The words "disabled" and "handicapped" can damage one's ego when used as nouns rather than as adjectives. See for yourself. Practice saying aloud "I am disabled," "I am a disabled person," and "I am a person who is disabled." Chances are that the last two expressions sounded best to your ears.
"Normal," too, can be a dangerous label. Once an interviewer told me, "You are looking at me right now like a normal person." Never had I considered myself otherwise. I was furious.
Okay. So we disabled people can safeguard our egos by recognizing "condescension" and "labeling." We can also take care of ourselves by preparing in advance for such occurrences. If, for example, an interviewer comments, "It's amazing how well you get around, "we might choose to ignore the remark, meanwhile thinking, "Is this guy for real?" Or we might feel more comfortable saying "Thank you, I'm glad you recognize my skills."
W can do something about our attitude towards our work and towards prospective employers. One afternoon when I found myself depressed by one interviewer's seeming lack of interest in an article I had written, I thought of a children's story in which a bear is painting a picture that two "fine proper gentlemen" neither understand nor like. Despite an enthusiastic explanation by the bear, the two "fine proper gentlemen" go away muttering. But the bear, undaunted, stands back and admires her work.
Maintaining this kind of positive attitude is difficult when job offers don't materialize, or when 100 people are applying for the same opening. How does one locate job vacancies, especially from a wheelchair? Are there special resources available to people who are disabled? "Yes."
The people who have been the most helpful to me in providing leads have some handicap of their won, or work directly with handicapped persons. Some of these contacts I have met by chance or by word-of-mouth. I have discovered many through a handy "Directory of Organizations Interested in the Handicapped" (available for $3 from the People-To-People Committee for the Handicapped, P.O. Box 28593, Washington, D.C. 20005). There are listings of more than 60 such organizations in the D.C. metropolitan area alone.
Applying for a job in an organization whose interest in handicapped persons is not known can be a dilemma. If I mention in a cover letter that I have a disability, I risk being disqualified for the initial interview. Why? Because the recipient of the letter may -- like the first interviewer who commented on my "amazing" ability to get around -- assume that I can't do the job. He or she may equate dis ability with in ability.
On the other hand, the recipient might be particularly interested in meeting me. If, for example, her organization hs a government contract, it may be advantageous to hire qualified disabled persons, in order to comply with federal nondiscriminatory rulings. My letter with its mention of disability might be a "foot in the door."
To mention or not to mention?
Usually I have answered a job ad that read EOE/AA or EOE/H with a general "I qualify under Affirmative Action."
Whatever approach we choose, in our cover letter or in our total job search, let's remind ourselves that we're not offering an employer our disabilities, but our skills .