To disclose or not to disclose: the disabled candidate’s conundrum - Part 1

Robin Christopherson is Head Of Digital InclusionIn the first part of this two-parter we look at the catch-22 faced by people with disabilities seeking work - and a new solution to this intractable dilemma. For almost twenty years it’s been a legal requirement not to discriminate against disabled people, but only now do we have a viable solution to the disabled candidate's dilemma – to disclose or not to disclose.

In recruitment it’s the law not to discriminate - but it isn't working

Every disabled candidate faces the same dilemma each time they apply for a job - do I tick the box that says I have a disability? The law states that employers need to make reasonable adjustments if that box is ticked. It’s there to help disabled candidates get fair treatment and be assessed on their merits and not their disability – but in reality that tickbox is often used to discriminate. It's actually having the opposite effect to what was intended.

Tickboxes just don't work

Several years ago there was a little experiment carried out to see what effect ticking this box has. Those running the experiment applied for twenty vacancies across a number of organisations, submitting a CV and covering letter in each case, and didn’t tick the box. When they applied they of course made sure that the qualifications and experience of the candidates met the requirements for each position.

They then applied for the same twenty vacancies with the same information for each application (changing only the name and a few other insignificant details so that these couldn’t be readily recognised as the same applications) and in each case they ticked the box. So, twenty pairs of applications that are identical in qualifications and experience, with the only difference being that the box saying ‘I have a disability’ was not ticked in the first of each pair.

What should happen at this point is that the recruiters, on seeing the tickbox flagging that an applicant has a disability, should get in touch with the individual to discuss what reasonable adjustments they might need to help them perform at their best throughout the application process.

Disabled applicants are simply NOT given a fair chance

However, what actually happened was that for the first twenty applications they got a reply saying “Thanks very much for your application” while for the second twenty they didn’t get a single reply. I’ll let that sink in for a moment…

I’ll let that sink in a bit more…

Has it fully sunk in?

Are you still trying to get your head around the discrimination, the inequity, the unfairness and the sheer irony?

I heard about this study four years ago and it still hits me anew each time I think about it.

Ticks turn to crosses

A tick in a box, designed to help you, turns into a big fat cross against you. This, unfortunately, is not unusual in how disabled candidates are discriminated against when it comes to being considered for employment – completely, utterly and totally regardless of their talents, abilities, qualifications or experience.

So why tick the box at all I hear you ask?

Not ticking the box is even worse as the adjustments you need to perform on a level playing field won’t be put in place. It’s the law to make those adjustments, but if you don’t tick the box it just means that your disability takes the recruiter by surprise and there’s no time to make those simple changes you need - they panic and the fear of doing something wrong means that they’ll find a way of sorting you into the ‘unsuccessful’ pile.

Give me a break

People with disabilities deserve more. When I left Cambridge I experienced similar difficulties - I had no luck whatsoever applying for jobs for which I was adequately qualified.

In the end I resorted to applying for vacancies that I was very much over-qualified for. The response I got (when I got one at all) was: “Why are you applying for this job. We don’t think you be suitable as you’re completely overqualified.” It was a horrible catch-22.

For a while I was one of the (often highly qualified) 73% of people of working age in the UK with a vision impairment currently unable to get work - people who have as many talents and abilities as everyone else and, with the right adjustments in place, can demonstrate these to the full. The same is equally true for people with other disabilities or impairments. Levels of unemployment across all areas of impairment are sky-high.

Faced with a frustratingly lack-lustre response from employers, disabled people often take further qualifications to improve their chances – it’s the lack of opportunities to gain experience combined with the sheer difficulty in getting an initial break that is holding them back.

Every single article I’ve written on this site testifies to the awesome power that simple changes to settings, combined with the right application of tech, can have to level the playing field and allow people to shine. Both the law and the tech are pushing the opportunities for disabled people forward, but employers are often pushing back.

When I finally applied for a job with AbilityNet (twenty years ago now) I was lucky enough to be considered on my merits and the rest is history. If only every organisation had the same approach.

Breaking the catch-22

So, what is the answer? How can candidates with disabilities get the chances that everyone else has? If they tick the box they get discriminated against and, if they don’t, the moment it comes to light that they have a disability they mysteriously fail to be asked through to the next stage of the application process.

The answer is simple. You just need to ask every candidate all the necessary questions (not only pertaining to disability but also age, gender, sexual orientation, race and religion etc, that are all covered under the Equality Act 2010) so that you can then map them to straightforward reasonable adjustments regardless of any needs they may have. This means that you’ll have a fully legal and inclusive recruitment process.

Fairer recruitment is simple when you know how

If that sounds far from simple, it’s because it is far from simple. That last paragraph was actually written with a certain amount of irony of my own. If it was simple, employers everywhere would already be doing it right.

It is complicated but nevertheless needs to be done right. But don’t worry. What we’ll discuss in the second part of this post will put your mind at rest. OK – I’ll give you a spoiler: the hard work has already been done for recruiters everywhere. The process of asking all the right questions and getting all the right, timely and reasonable answers is nicely wrapped up into one online package and tied with a beautiful bow.

In Part two I'll take a look at an award-winning solution that AbilityNet has helped to develop called ClearTalents and show how it breaks that horrible catch-22 once and for all.