Understand the benefits of being open and the consequences of not being.
Often the biggest question for students and graduates with disabilities or long-term health conditions is whether to disclose their condition(s) to employers during the recruitment process – or, if not, whether to do so in the workplace. ‘If I had a pound every time a student asked me whether they should disclose, I’d be a millionaire several times over,’ says Helen Cooke, who is founder and CEO of MyPlus, an organisation that supports students and graduates with disabilities to start professional careers and works with employers to ensure that they provide the best possible experience for candidates and employees with disabilities.
‘Students’ biggest fears about disclosure are the possibility of discrimination, of being seen as a hassle, of causing a fuss or of being seen to request special treatment,’ she says. ‘In such a competitive environment, they don’t want to give recruiters any reason to remove them from the recruitment process.’’
These are not fears to be dismissed and Helen does not do so – but she also stresses that intelligent employers want all candidates to have a positive experience during the recruitment process and to perform their best in the workplace. ‘The question that I get asked the most by employers is "how can we encourage students to be open so that we can better support them?"’
Should I disclose a disability to graduate employers?
Helen is absolutely clear that the question of whether to disclose (or, as she refers to it, being open) is a personal choice and something that you shouldn’t feel pushed into. However, she also feels passionately that your decision should be based on a realistic assessment of your individual situation, rather than on hearsay.
‘You need to understand the benefits of being open and the consequences of not being open. Being open enables you to get the support you need to perform at your best; not doing so could lead you to be rejected for a job you are the best candidate for.’ Particularly if your disability or health condition is visible, it also allows you to take control of the narrative – to stress your strengths and implicitly counter any assumptions you might be concerned about the employer having (as long as you do it in the right way).
While some candidates will choose to disclose because they want to be open and feel their authentic selves, Helen feels that for many candidates the more pertinent question is: will support enable you to perform at your best and be assessed fairly against other candidates? In the UK, an employer is legally required to make reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process and in the workplace to prevent a disabled person from being at a disadvantage when compared to a non-disabled person – but only if they could be reasonably expected to know. ‘If you are unsuccessful in the recruitment process, it is often too late to tell an employer then. They have no obligation to reopen the recruitment process for you – and if they do so, that could create the “hassle” that so many students are keen to avoid,’ Helen observes.
Requesting a reasonable adjustment is not about being made a special case or being advantaged over another candidate; it is about making sure that things are put in place so that you are not being disadvantaged.
What is a reasonable adjustment to make in the recruitment process for disabled candidates?
What precisely is a ‘reasonable’ adjustment is not something that is categorically set out in law, as it depends on the particular requirements of the individual candidate and the resources available to the employer. Helen thinks that the phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’ is unhelpful because it is too legalistic. ‘I advise you to think in more everyday terms: what is the barrier that I am trying to overcome? What can I request that will enable me to overcome it? If you need it, it is reasonable to request it.’ It will be helpful here if you know what the recruitment process will involve – in many cases it will be outlined on an employer’s recruitment website.
Some of the most common reasonable adjustment requests include:
- additional time for tests and assessment exercises
- ensuring that the interview and assessment centre places are physically accessible to you and that accessible facilities are provided nearby
- changes to the format of the interview (for example, an interviewer could hold the interview over a video platform to overcome physical access difficulties, rephrase questions to facilitate different ways of processing information, or restructure the interview to include rest breaks to help alleviate anxiety)
- the use of technology
- the use of an interpreter
- an orientation visit (which includes meeting the interviewers) prior to the interview.
There could be times when an employer can’t accommodate a specific request, but they should discuss potential alternative measures or actions with you. It may, for example, not be possible for your interviewer to escort you to the interview from a train station or airport, but they may pay for or arrange a taxi for you. They may not be able to provide you with a chair set to your specific lumbar requirements for the interview but will be able to carry your own chair in from your car for you or to arrange an alternative method of interviewing, such as conducting it over Zoom. (Note: such a chair would be a reasonable adjustment if you were successful in the recruitment process and started work. However, for an employer to purchase a chair for one-time use in an interview when they can provide an alternative way of interviewing you probably falls under the category of an ‘unreasonable’ adjustment.)
Helen stresses that you should be mindful that employers have designed a recruitment process to assess candidates against required competencies and so it is not generally reasonable to ask to skip a stage entirely – but it may be reasonable to ask if those competencies can be assessed in a different way. Indeed, an employer might already have an alternative in place. A few employers are now using virtual reality (VR) exercises in their face-to-face assessment centres, for example, but they have an alternative exercise set up for those who are not comfortable with VR (which might not just be candidates with disabilities or health conditions). Similarly, if taking an online test would disadvantage you, employers should give you the option to take it in a different format, allow you extra time or assess your skills in a different way.
How and when do I inform employers of a disability if I choose to?
Helen advises preparing a short openness statement that factually states your needs. We look at how to write one and provide some examples below.
‘When you choose to do so is entirely up to you,’ says Helen. ‘Some candidates add a note to their covering letter. Large employers usually include a box on their application form, which you can tick if you wish to. It is important to note that answering "yes" to the disabilities question on the equal opportunities section of the form is not disclosing your disability; the recruiters don’t see it.’
Some candidates wish to wait until they have reached the online test or interview stage – it can reassure some candidates that they have indeed been progressed on their merits. Ensure, however, that you leave employers sufficient time to put any adjustments in place. ‘If you wait until the night before an interview to say that you need them to hire a BSL interpreter, for example, that may indeed cause the fuss that you were afraid of and may lead to a delay in the recruitment process for everyone,’ Helen observes. You should ask for the reasonable adjustments you need, but be considerate of the employer, too.
You can contact the employer via phone or via email, depending on what is comfortable for you. An employer should then contact you to discuss your requirements; if for some reason they don’t, do follow up. Helen points out that the employers she works with at MyPlus all have recruitment disability experts and their contact details are on the MyPlus Student Club resource. The Club is free to join.
What do I say in an openness statement?
Helen provides the following examples of openness statements:
- I have dyslexia. I will need 25% extra time. This will allow me to process the information I have been given.
- I experience anxiety. I would like an orientation visit prior to my interview and for the interviewing managers to know that I may become more anxious than others.
- I am on medication for my health condition. I would like for my interview to be scheduled for the afternoon. This will allow the effects of my medication to have worn off.
Here’s one from TARGETjobs:
- I have an uneven walking gait and can have difficulty with steps. If an interview is held in an upstairs room, I would require a lift or for stairs to have a rail or bannister to access the room.
You can see that these follow Helen’s key principles:
- They are relevant and focus on support: ‘Employers do not need to know the ins and outs of your medical history; they are interested in how they can support you,’ Helen says. ‘There is no need to share your story – only the information that will get you the support you need and what it will enable you to do.’
- They are unapologetic: ‘Don’t use words such as “suffer”, “unfortunately” or “sadly” or stress what you can’t do,’ says Helen.
‘Remember that all you are doing is ensuring that you are assessed on a level playing field so that all of your strengths can shine through. If you disclose, it is vital to position your disability positively. Many people with anxiety, for example, work incredibly hard and are perfectionists. My own disability has not made any more special than anyone else, but it has given me something extra,’ Helen says.