Last year I sent off more than 140 job applications. Only three led to an interview. I convinced myself I was doing something wrong in my search for a job in the media, but after one bruising encounter I realised it was not me. It was my disability.
I have cystic fibrosis, an invisible illness that affects my lungs which means my needs are often less obvious. What I need from potential employers is a commitment to a legal requirement called a “reasonable adjustment” to the normal terms and conditions offered to staff. For me this would mean a guarantee that I can work flexible hours and from home if needed, and take time off for hospital appointments.
I have been shielding during the pandemic and unable to leave my house for the past year. In May 2020 I was delighted to be called for an interview for a deputy editor role at a small media company. When I requested to have it online, rather than face-to-face, I was shocked when the interviewer went on to ghost me. Before my request for an online interview I was told I was a strong candidate.
Getting a job is hard, but having a disability makes it harder. There are currently about 8.3m disabled people of working age in the UK, but only 4.4m are in work. According to Scope, the disability charity, disabled people are almost twice as likely to be unemployed compared with others in the UK. They also apply for 60 per cent more jobs than non-disabled counterparts before securing employment.
Caroline Casey, founder of The Valuable 500, a collective that has secured commitments from 500 global chief executives to advance disability inclusion within their organisations, says disabled people face various barriers at work. These include employers’ and colleagues’ attitudes, lack of accessibility and inflexible working conditions.
“It’s exhausting dealing with stigma and stereotypes,” she says, “and that’s before you even get into the recruitment process.”
The decision about whether to disclose disability on job applications divides the disabled community. Many worry that being open will lead directly to rejections from employers. Despite the Equality Act 2010, which makes disability discrimination illegal, when it comes to job applications and CVs, disabled people rarely have proof of their mistreatment.
Shani Dhanda, 33, is a disability specialist and entrepreneur, who was born with a rare genetic condition called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), known as brittle bones.
After leaving school aged 16, Dhanda applied for more than 100 jobs but failed to get a single interview. “I had one sentence in my covering letter that said I have a condition but specified that I don’t need any adjustments.”
Once Dhanda decided to remove any mention of OI from her covering letter, she was immediately offered an interview that resulted in a job offer.
Now Dhanda writes her CV in a way that presents her condition as a skillset. “It’s encouraging when I see an employer is signed up to things like the Disability Confident Scheme, and talks about adjustments and flexibility on their careers page. Now I judge the company on their actions and values before I decide to apply.”
Because so many people have had to work from home during the pandemic, disabled people have had flexibility to manage their health alongside their careers. But the progress has been bittersweet: before Covid, disabled staff were often denied requests for flexible working patterns. These apparently non-negotiable changes were implemented almost overnight during a global health crisis.
“It’s ridiculous it took a global pandemic for businesses to innovate the way they allow employees to work.” Dhanda says. “I think in the future world of work, flexibility needs to be key. This will help more disabled people get employed and stay in work.”
Hortense Julienne, founder of Miss Nang Treats, a plant-based range of snacks, and author of two cookbooks, suffers from a rare disease called desmoid, a recidivist tumour that destroys bones and the muscles around it. After several operations she suffers from chronic pain and has little use of her left upper arm.
For Julienne, disclosing her disability on job applications was never an option: “My intention was always that, if I got the job, I would prove them right for choosing me.” But after little success in securing a position she stopped applying and started her own company.
“Becoming self-employed has given me more control. I no longer have to continually prove I can do a job to people who assume my disability makes me stupid,” she says.
According to a study by Leonard Cheshire, a UK charity supporting disabled people, one in five employers are still hesitant to employ a disabled person. The proportion of employers who say their organisation employs any disabled staff fell to 33 per cent in 2020.
Subira Jones is a life coach and corporate burnout prevention consultant. She was working as an investment analyst when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord.
She was 25, and after a year of debilitating symptoms, she decided to take a career break. After five months she was able to return to work.
“I was a sought-after candidate, receiving numerous calls from recruiters who wanted to represent me,” she says. “But from the moment I said I needed a part-time or flexible position due to my disability, they became hesitant. As soon as the recruiter hung up, I knew I was not going to hear from them again.”
Mentioning her disability ran the risk of her being overlooked, so she became scared to declare it. “When an employer sees that a candidate has a disability, they make an assumption that the individual will not be able to successfully deliver the work needed,” Jones says.
She adds that an individual may have the right skills for the job but they may not have the energy or strength to work nine to five, five days a week. This then hinders career progress for disabled candidates: when roles are not advertised as being flexible, it forms an invisible barrier.
Yousra Imran, 32, is the West-Yorkshire based author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, a book about a young British Muslim woman growing up between London and the Middle East. She is also a freelance journalist, works in education marketing, and has hypermobile Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder, and epilepsy.
Imran always declares her disability on applications as legally companies can’t discriminate, and “if a place did discriminate against me based on my disabilities, it would show me their true colours and I wouldn’t want to work for them”.
Pre pandemic, her employer had no homeworking policy and she struggled to manage her health while working in an office five days a week. But over the past 18 months, “I have been able to prove I can deliver all my work from home while managing my fatigue levels, so I am hopeful they will be more receptive to flexible working post pandemic.”
Culture of openness
Studies show 17 per cent of disabled people are born with a disability, with the rest becoming disabled during the course of their lives.
“Anybody can become disabled at any point,” says Jane Hatton, chief executive at Evenbreak, an accessible jobs board for disabled people. Hatton, who has a degenerative spinal condition, wants organisations to create a culture where people can discuss the barriers they face.
A May 2021 report from Tortoise Media and The Valuable 500 found there are no executives or senior managers who have disclosed a disability at any of the FTSE 100 companies. The average representation of people with disabilities among employees reported by FTSE 100 companies stands at 3.2 per cent, compared with 18-20 per cent of the UK population.
“It’s about creating a culture where it’s safe to talk about disability,” says The Valuable 500’s Casey. “Companies need . . . to create a culture where CEO’s are leading the conversation on disability.”
At Evenbreak, Hatton tells employers that disabled candidates have the same diversity of experience and qualifications as everybody else, but will have additional skills when it comes to facing barriers or finding different ways of doing things. “It took a global pandemic for them to realise that people weren’t asking to work from home so they could be lazy. They were asking to work from home so that they could be more productive.”
She suggests companies could even share case studies of current disabled employees to help demystify “preconceived ideas” of what disability actually is.
As a 22 year old graduate starting out in the working world, I will continue to disclose my disability on job applications. If my CV is good enough without mentioning it, then it is good enough when I include it. It is not disability that could hold me back, it is discrimination.