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I'm a wheelchair user and while I can easily get interviews, I never get called back after and you can see their surprise when they see I am in a wheelchair.

I'm not looking to sue or anything. I just want to know what might cause employers to discriminate against disabled people and what I might pre-emptively do about it to make it less of a problem.

I am applying for software engineering jobs so I should be fine I would have thought.

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    What feedback have you been given on why you haven't got the roles you've applied for? Apr 26, 2020 at 15:22
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    This at the very least needs a country tag, as in US/UK its usually best to just disclose being a wheelchair user right off the bat.
    – Aida Paul
    Apr 26, 2020 at 15:23
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    @PhilipKendall usually never hear from them again or am told the position got cancelled (this was happening before COVID). Apr 26, 2020 at 15:33
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    One issue could be health problems or perceived health problems. Can you work 40-50 hours a week consistently? How many sick days will you take? If you don't work out, can you easily be fired? or will you sue? And of course, there is also just plain stupidity and ignorance. Apr 26, 2020 at 16:27
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    It is also possible that you may not be qualified for the roles you're pursuing. I would recommend talking to your recruiter (if these are recruiter based roles) or the company's hr department and request specific feedback. If it's a technical-based reason they'll be able to provide it to you. If you get gibberish and excuses, then you met with ignorant/fearful people. Always get feedback, even if you don't get a return call after an interview. Apr 26, 2020 at 19:23

8 Answers 8

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“lack of awareness of disability and accommodation issues, concern over costs, and fear of legal liability.”See study here

I don't employ people so a lot of this is a combination of Googling and speculation. Consider this answer more ideation rather than authoritative guidance.

  1. A lot of jobs have little aspects not covered in the job description. My job is typically a standard desk only software engineering job, but every so often the network cables under my desk require that I pull them out and plug them back in again. For me, it is not even worth sending an email to IT about it as it is a 30-second annoyance every 2-3 months. But for you, that issue would be a problem and many workplaces have lots of stupid little physical tasks like that. We also have meetings in head office which is a couple of blocks away. Again, that could be an issue for you. The law looks at job descriptions as these highly detailed specs of what employees do. In practice, they are often a pile of hopes, aspirations, and boilerplate.

  2. Environments are not typically tested for all scenarios. There is a men's bathroom in an old office of mine which has several tight turns to get into and a heavy fireproof door in the front. There is a former elevated stage in another office that became a boardroom. It was just one step to get into it, but that may as well be a mountain for someone in a wheelchair. My Dad used to work in a building that used to be two and the floors were at different heights. Two steps were in the middle of the hall connecting them.

  3. Software doesn't support a lot of disabilities. This is less an issue for you, but a major issue for companies as this can be extremely expensive to fix. Accommodating people with disabilities in using software requires that the software have been built to use many of the accessibility APIs. Besides alt tags and the occasional aria, I have never seen any use of them in the wild. I suspect a lot of corporate internal software would need a major rewrite if it needed to work with a screenreader. I would be interested to know what percent of developers on here have ever built software including accessibility APIs.

  4. Suddenly piles of new things must be considered. That narrow space in the hallway because you have a pile of boxes there? Have to move it. Are cubicles too narrow? Got to alter it. Cable which needs resetting? Now IT must be summoned to find a permanent solution. Can they get into the bathroom? Uh.... So the government will pay for accommodations, but will they process it before the end of the fiscal year? Uh...

Employing someone with a disability falls into the category of messy and complicated. The easier thing for an employer to do is just to move on to the next candidate and unfortunately for you, there isn't a way to make yourself less of a complication as many of these issues would only be uncovered once you started working there.

The solution is to target companies where they have people for handling the messy and complicated and where budgets for accommodations aren't coming from the manager or where the manager is not responsible for figuring out all the accommodations.

Target big companies and governments. They usually have people tasked with resolving accessibility issues so there is less fear of the unknown or the legal consequences. They are also more likely to have already compliant facilities.

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  • Very good answer and solution.
    – Jim Clay
    Apr 26, 2020 at 20:06
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    Don't most countries / states have accessibility laws for things like disabled toilets Apr 26, 2020 at 21:59
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    @Neuromancer yes, but plenty of toilets are older than those laws. What happens is that they can in practice stay until someone disabled complains. Apr 27, 2020 at 0:25
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    Very good answer
    – Kilisi
    Apr 27, 2020 at 9:45
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    @Neuromancer There is also the problem that some organizations fulfill accessibility laws to the letter but not to the spirit. So they end up with facilities which in theory are perfectly compliant but in practice are still inaccessible for people with disabilities.
    – Philipp
    Apr 27, 2020 at 12:51
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I just want to know what might cause employers to discriminate against disabled people and what I might pre-emptively do about it to make it less of a problem.

Assuming that it exists, your only real recourse is to disclose your need for wheelchair access right from the bat. While I can understand the want to keep it private, this is something that will come up the very first time they meet you anyway, but now with the added surprise element. You may even be invited to interview in a place that is not wheelchair accessible, and that will be a bit awkward situation for everyone.

It's important to mention that if the work you would be doing can be done without any substantial adjustments (the building is already accessible etc) then only a stupid company would reject someone because of having a disability, not a place you want to work at anyway. But also I would not be so sure as to just plainly put all the blame on the chair, whenever a company interviews for a position they will get dozens/hundreds of candidates, and conduct probably at least 10 interviews with only one position to fill; nine people are going to be disappointed.

Though I have to mention that while you are under no obligation to ever disclose your disability unless you are requesting adjustments, disclosing disability can also be beneficial for you, as in certain countries and states there are programs where employers can get various benefits/discounts for employing you. It's up for you to decide.

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    This last paragraph is important, it's reverse discrimination basically. Where your wheelchair helps fill a quota or has some other benefit.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 27, 2020 at 9:47
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Some already good answers but a different/supplemental perspective:

It sounds like you are getting interviews but no offers. The reason can be

  1. Because you are wheelchair bound
  2. Because you don't interview well, you behave suboptimal, your actual experience and skill don't match you resume, the wrong communication style, or any of the hundred other reasons why people typically don't get the offer.
  3. A combination of both

In order for you to work the problem, you need to understand which one it is. While you are focusing on item #1 you may be missing something important in bucket #2. It may be worth doing a few practice interviews with trusted friends (with the right background) or even a consultant and get some feedback that way.

I never get called back after and you can see their surprise when they see I am in a wheelchair.

I presume that your disability is not mentioned in your resume or any phone screen. The "surprise" thing may backfire on you. Companies generally don't like surprises in the hiring process (whatever they might be). An alternative option we would be to up front about in your resume: Have a section with "disability" and "required accommodation" which describes clearly what you can do and what you would need help with. This would allow any potential employer to think this through and interview you with confidence.

Three things may happen:

  1. You stop getting interview invites. Then you have your answer: you are getting rejected because your disability.
  2. You keep getting interviews but still no offers: Then work on bucket #2, you do most likely do something in the interviews that prevents from getting the job. Since the company already knows about your requirements, they wouldn't have invited you if they weren't fine with it.
  3. You get a job: By being upfront about it, you gave the employer a chance to work this through in detail which made it much easier from them to proceed with confidence.

The legal situation here is quite clear: Discrimination is illegal and unethical. However, the law as written sometimes does more harm than good: discrimination is extremely difficult to prove and at the same time the law and it's consequences scare the heck out of many employers because it's very fuzzy and hard to assess.

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  • Yes. Exactly this. Additionally, there are many companies out there that will prioritize the potential employee with disability over the one without. They do it either to fight the existing bias against those persons or because it make them look good and they can then use it in the HR adverts. But, in either case, telling it upfront would help OP get the interview at those companies.
    – Jeffrey
    Apr 27, 2020 at 13:01
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    OP can try disclosing their disability earlier but I don’t think their resume is the right place to do it. Most job applications have instructions on how to request accommodation for interviews. It should be done there or over the phone in the interview preceding an on-site interview.
    – BSMP
    Apr 28, 2020 at 3:10
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Discrimination exists. It is illegal, but unless they accidentally send you an email talking about how they would never hire someone in a wheelchair, you have no proof and can do nothing about it.

All you can do is to try and avoid these companies/hiring managers in the first place. Seeing as you don't know who they are, simply disclose your wheelchair (I'd recommend the end of your first phone interview as a good point in the process) and let them self-select themselves out of consideration.

That way, you can avoid wasting time on them and focus on companies and opportunities that might actually go somewhere.

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It is against the law in the United States to discriminate against anyone with a disability that can reasonably be accommodated. If you feel that you are being discriminated against, you can make an official complaint with the Department of Labor.

However, you should be careful to consider that the reasons for not hiring you might have nothing whatsoever to do with your unfortunate disability.

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    "It is against the law" -- yes, sure, but normaly you cannot prove this. If the interviewers are biased, they will probably not let you know (if they even know themselves that they are biased).
    – guest
    Apr 27, 2020 at 14:01
  • Also, what would the Department of Labor do? Sue the companies? Would the plaintiff be required to testify? Would it be a public procedure? In some countries, having a history of suing companies you've worked (or attempted) for speaks heavily against you, and employers will often check if you have a history of doing it.
    – Mefitico
    Apr 27, 2020 at 14:20
  • Against the law don't mean anything if you don't have the money to live off of when you fight them in court
    – Tina_Sea
    Apr 28, 2020 at 13:10
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Discrimination can exist in any form. For me it was my career break. I was rejected for that reason, irrespective of my upgraded technical skills. And then, I decided to be upfront about it. I started mentioning in the CV. This made it clear to the recruiters, whether they want to proceed with my candidature or not. Saved a lot of time for both the parties.

Do that; mention it in your CV. There are companies who exclusively go for such candidates.

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  • Could you add how one should include the disability into the cv?
    – guest
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:20
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Frame Challenge: You're Focusing On The Wrong Thing

My success rate - in terms of applying for a job and it leading to a job offer - is somewhere around 4% through the course of my life. In terms of Interviews-Into-Job-Offers, it's probably around 15%-20%.

That's to say: I often fail.

But here's the big difference: when I fail, it's because I assume there was something under my control that was reason I failed. I wasn't proficient in technologies X, Y, and Z. I didn't have a good grasp on the architecture. I tried proposing a solution too fast and missed one of the secret requisites the interviewer had in mind. I didn't leave a good impression on my social skills. Etc, etc, etc.

It sucks, and it's painful to think that way... but the end result is: I work on improving myself. Social skills didn't wow them? Okay, maybe I need to do some mock interviews, or figure out a way of being less nervous. Didn't grasp the architecture? Maybe I need to play around for a few weekends poking around with the theory of MVC. Etc, etc, etc.

So take a look at your question. You had the interviews... but it didn't lead to an offer. And you immediately thought: "This can't be any fault of mine - it must be because of discrimination. How do I get them to stop discriminating?"

Sure, it might be discrimination. Or it might be because you're not a good fit for the job or are missing some aspects that they're looking for. By focusing on the former, you're not improving your career prospects for the next interview.

So let's say your next interview is with someone who positively doesn't discriminate... and the two candidates are you and me. You've brushed off every 'No' as not-your-fault; and I've taken every one of them as a sign that I need to improve my hireability.

Who do you think gets the offer between us?

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A wheelchair disability should not be the reason you don't land a software engineering job. It would be unethical to not be hired for having this disability under most circumstances.

Now especially you have a strong position because a lot of work is done remotely due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Teamwork, meetings and interviews are done from a remote workplace currently and it is estimated that the remote workplace is here to stay.

Therefore you can emphasize that if there are some physical challenges in the workplace this does not hinder teamwork. Not that you wouldn't mind going in the office often, but alternatives are plentiful and void possible discriminating arguments against you.

Apply where you want to work don't let your job pool be lowered based on your disability like @Matthew suggests. Self discrimination for SE jobs (to large corps/gov) based on your physical disability? No hecking way! Go for the SE jobs that you want to do and want to get better at.

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