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As a teenager, Shani Dhanda quickly discovered the difficulties she would face in securing employment. Applying for a part-time job as a 16-year-old, she mentioned the rare genetic condition she was born with that means she is 3’10” tall, has brittle bones and fluctuating pain and energy levels.
After applying for more than 100 jobs she thought herself capable of doing, and receiving nothing in response, she tried omitting mention of her disability — and promptly secured an interview and then a job.
“So for me at quite a young age, I had a hard reality check,” Ms Dhanda says. “I thought, wow, OK, this is how I have to go forward.”
Years later and with a degree in event management, she was one of the first in her class to secure a job, where she stayed for six years. Five-and-a-half years in, her manager changed and things deteriorated. “My condition was fluctuating,” Ms Dhanda says, and it became a difficult relationship. “She didn’t really understand my condition.”
Instead of ploughing energy into fighting her manager, she started freelancing and eventually quit her day job. “Whereas people would look at me and think, ‘oh she’s not going to do a good job, she’s going to always take time off sick or whatever’, I was going to work and then coming home and starting my five-to-nine,” she says. “I’m really proud of that entrepreneurialism.”
Her experiences show the difficulties that disabled people face in securing and keeping jobs — problems that have less to do with what they cannot do than with what their employers think they cannot do.
Disability experts say that the path to getting a job has many obstacles, ranging from blunt procedural hurdles to more subtle barriers in the form of employers’ attitudes.
Despite efforts worldwide to improve diversity in the workplace, when asked about disability employers “kind of glaze over”, says Jane Hatton, founder of the specialist disabled recruitment agency Evenbreak. “Their attitude changes to ‘It’s such a shame’,” she adds.
“I try to say it’s nothing to do with pity or charity, it's about disabled people having valuable skills . . . People tend to think in terms of what they can’t do. If you’re going to be working in a call centre or IT, you don’t actually need your legs, so it’s irrelevant.”
The determination and resilience that disabled people need for everyday life make them valuable employees, she says, adding that some conditions also had specific benefits.
“Jobs that are repetitive or detailed: somebody with autism, because they think in a different way, can be really good at that. Somebody who is deaf can be really good at reading body language,” she adds.
The easiest barriers to lower are the practical ones — such as premises that are inaccessible or websites that are impossible to use. “Online recruitment is notoriously inaccessible, discriminatory [and] shambolic,” says Susan Scott-Parker, founder of Business Disability International, which helps businesses cater to disabled staff.
Ms Scott-Parker gives examples of tests that do not allow for people whose impairments mean they need extra time, or websites that do not work with assistive technology. “It’s an inefficient labour market that causes a dyslexic accountant to miss out on a £45,000-a-year job because of a problem with a website — a job he can do,” she says.
Another more fundamental obstacle, hiring specialists say, is the tendency to think of jobs in terms of means rather than ends, which can lead to inflexibility when a disabled person wants to do a task differently.
The way candidates are assessed can also be a barrier. “Interviews are often a study of how well you can describe what you’ve done, not what you can do, so if you have a communications or learning difficulty, you are probably not giving your best impression,” says Philip Connolly, policy manager at Disability Rights UK. He said work trials or other ways of having “substantive performance” assessed were a better way of getting the most out of candidates.
Nick Bacon, professor in human resource management at Cass Business School in London, says formal competency tests make it more likely that “disabled applicants are evaluated fairly and impartially”, when compared with standard interviews, where hiring managers’ negative assumptions or stereotypes could creep in.
The things that employers have to do to accommodate disabled employees are rarely onerous or expensive, according to these specialists. What is required, they say, is flexibility and having an open mind, as opposed to a “this is the way we do it” mindset.
“People think we’ll have to knock down the building or change all our policies — it’s usually simpler than that,” says Ms Hatton. People whose condition makes it difficult to travel in rush hour could be allowed to come in later or work from home; for people with vision impairments, walkways could be kept decluttered; workstations can be equipped with different chairs, software or monitors.
Accommodating Ms Dhanda’s needs meant simple adjustments such as a footstool, so her legs are not left dangling, and a different keyboard, as well as understanding that her condition’s fluctuating nature meant she would sometimes have to work from home. Providing this is not expensive but does require an employer that can have “confident conversations around disability”, she says.