A Person's Disability Should Not Disable Their Career

Will you embrace difference?

25/05/2016 5:40 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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When someone with a disability applies for a job at your organisation, how will you respond?

On paper, I am an appealing candidate. University degrees. An array of relevant work experience -- in the corporate world, then a social worker, and now writing.

If we met in person, sitting around the office table, you would be impressed by my communication skills. The conversation is engaging and flows freely. Examples provide more insight into how I could perform in the advertised role. You even wonder whether I am over-qualified for the position.

But them, something unexpected happens. You hadn't seen me walk into the office. But as I stand to say goodbye, you are surprised when a walking stick appears from under the table. Immediately there is a seed of doubt. Unanswered questions are racing through your mind."Why a walking stick?" "She looks healthy, maybe it's an injury?" "But she seems a bit wobbly on her legs; maybe something more serious is wrong?" "Am I allowed to ask?"

In this moment I, too, am faced with a dilemma. Do I disclose the reason for the stick? The reality that for nearly 20 years I have been living with multiple sclerosis (MS)? That early on the relapses were both frequent and aggressive? Do I tell you that hospital and rehab had become a revolving door. That I have spent more time than I care to remember lying in a hospital bed unable to move, sitting in wheelchairs and then learning how to walk again (and again and again)?

Part of me wants to be upfront, to tell you MS has made me the person I am today. By navigating through the dark times I've discovered strengths I was oblivious to. And today, when faced with any challenge, I know I have it within myself to cope and prosper.

MS has taught me the importance of being actively involved in every aspect of my life. Ensuring I create an environment that is conducive to my overall health and wellbeing. And in applying for this position, I am confident this role will encourage my work-life balance to continue.

But I am apprehensive about instigating this conversation. Will this information overshadow the interview we just had? Do you have preconceived ideas about disability and/or MS that will now influence your decision or your ability to work with me in the future?

Employing a candidate with a disability may not have been part of your plan. MS wasn't part of mine, either. However, if I am the most suitable person for this position I encourage you to:

Be flexible.

Consider flexible working arrangements. A different start or finish time; the option of part-time hours or even job sharing.

Be innovative.

Technology means we can stay connected even if not always in the office. A computer at home, teleconferencing -- there are many options.

Be accommodating.

An ergonomic chair and desk. A parking space to ensure accessibility. Such examples will minimise fatigue, assist in pain management and maximise productivity.

Be approachable.

I don't want to expend energy trying to hide my symptoms for fear of repercussions. A few minutes to let you know will let me focus on what's important: creating the best environment possible for work.

Be inclusive.

Have a workplace that reflects the diversity present in our community. Internally your workplace will benefit from new perspectives and insights. Externally you will experience greater connection to your customers and clients.

Be a leader.

It is time for people living with disability to be included. You can have an impact. You can help break down the barriers. You can be a workplace success story that will inspire others.

Be excited.

Be excited about unimagined possibilities. This has been my motto. Take on a challenge and be surprised by the outcome.

Now back to the moment my walking stick appears from under the desk. When this does happen -- when I or someone else with a disability applies for a job at your organisation -- how will you respond?

Will you embrace difference? Will you challenge your existing paradigm -- the way you have always approached employment? Will you be excited for unimagined possibilities?

I hope so.

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