Hold on to what makes you stand out as an individual.
Some university students with disabilities or long-term health conditions may have additional questions or concerns when it comes to applying for graduate jobs. This is something that Helen Cooke knows all about. Helen, a wheelchair user herself, is the CEO and founder of MyPlus, an organisation that supports students with disabilities to start professional careers. Of course, no two people’s experiences of disability are the same – but in her work Helen encounters a lot of similar questions from concerned students, so TARGETjobs had a chat with her to get some answers.
Does my disability ‘count’ as a disability in employers’ minds?
Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer is legally required to make reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process and in the workplace to prevent a disabled person being at a disadvantage when compared to a non-disabled person, as long as they could be reasonably expected to know about the disability. The act defines disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment’ that has ‘a substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on a person's ‘ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.
However, Helen’s advice is not to get caught up too much in the semantics of definitions. ‘Intelligent employers want to support their staff to perform their role to the best of their ability. Employers aren't interested in what your disability is – they are not medical experts,’ she says. ‘The question forn them during the recruitment process and in the workplace is how can we support you to demonstrate your full potential?’
So, for example, if you have anxiety and you think it would be helpful for your interviewers to know that you may get more nervous than others and you would benefit from rest breaks, don’t worry about whether you meet the legal definition: if you feel comfortable requesting breaks, ask for them.
Should I disclose (or declare) a disability or condition?
‘This concern about being open about a disability is the most frequently expressed by students,’ says Helen. ‘Students have a big fear of possible discrimination or being seen as a hassle and don’t want to be thought of as causing a fuss. At a time when recruitment is so competitive, people don’t want to give employers any reason to remove them from the process. And yet conversely the question I hear most from employers is "how can we encourage people to be more open so that we can support them?"’
Disclosing a disability is always a personal decision. ‘It’s not for me to tell you whether to disclose or not, but it is important to make an informed decision,’ Helen urges. ‘Many students say to me “I’ve heard of someone being open before and being rejected so I am not going to.” And that is fine, but you need to understand the benefits of being open and the consequences of not. Being open enables you to get the support you need to perform at your best; not being so could lead you to be rejected for a job you are the best candidate for.’
Helen points out that if you tell the employer about a disability or condition once you have been rejected there is no obligation on them to reopen the application.
The key question to ask yourself is: will asking for support or reasonable adjustments ensure that you can be assessed on a level playing field? It is not about giving yourself an advantage over others, or somehow claiming you deserve special treatment; rather it is ensuring that you are not disadvantaged, that you have the same opportunities to showcase your strengths as your peers.
How do I disclose a disability during the application process?
The best way is to create a short openness statement that is factual and focuses on what support/adjustments you need to perform to your full potential and why. Helen stresses that it should be focused; you do not need to share your medical history.
What reasonable adjustments can I ask for in the recruitment process?
Employers will discuss with you the reasonable adjustments you require in order for them to assess you fairly. There is, therefore, an onus on you to be aware of your needs, which can be more challenging if you have been more recently diagnosed or if you are unsure what can be provided or what is ‘reasonable’. Helen says: ‘I advise you to think in everyday terms: what is the barrier that I am trying to overcome? What can I request that will enable me to overcome it?’ She suggests, ‘If you need it, it is reasonable to request it.’
Some students with disabilities may choose not to apply to an employer because they think that they will not be able to undertake some aspects of the recruitment process, such as online tests (this is known as ‘self-selecting out’). Think twice before doing so. ‘Have a conversation with the employer rather than deciding alone what can and can’t be done, and taking yourself out of the process. There are ways around barriers,’ says Helen. Employers could, for example, provide paper tests for those who find the format of online tests difficult or they could assess the skills in a different way that would not disadvantage them. ‘If you join the MyPlus Students’ Club (which is free), you will have access to the contact details of disability experts within those organisations who will be able to discuss your requirements in detail with you,’ Helen says.
How do I find a disability-friendly or disability-confident employer?
There is the Disability Confident employer scheme run by the UK government (this was previously known as the two ticks scheme) but Helen is adamant that you shouldn’t confine yourself to employers accredited by the scheme. ‘Don’t limit yourself or self-select out from applying to an employer. Be driven by your ambitions and aspirations rather than a logo on an employer’s website,’ she says. ‘Some employers may be at the start of their disability confident journey, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t support you.’
How do I demonstrate my full potential and showcase my skills and strengths?
‘Too often I get asked “Will my disability be seen as a hindrance? Will I be seen as less capable?”', Helen reflects. ‘If you feel this, it is important to try to turn your thoughts around. I always say that my disability doesn’t make me any more special than others, but I do think it has given me something extra. There are strengths and skills that I’ve developed because of it – including problem solving, determination, flexibility and communication – and that’s what we have to think about. Identify and focus on your strengths and your pluses.’
Some candidates may worry that they will be rejected because they have not got the same range of work experience and extracurriculars on their CVs as their non-disabled peers. Helen urges you to look at the situation differently. ‘We know that it can be harder for disabled individuals to find work experience – for example, I have two sisters who could babysit and work in shops and I couldn’t do that,’ she says. 'But if you haven’t got traditional work experience, ask: why do employers want you to have work experience? It is for you to have evidence of certain skills. Employers do not mind how you have developed those skills. Reflect on other ways you could have developed them. For example, have you had to manage your studies around a weekly hospital appointment? Have you maintained the commitment of playing in your university orchestra? Hold on to what makes you stand out as an individual.’