Job-hunting with a disability: To disclose or not to disclose?
Getting in front of an open-minded employer is all too often down to luck
Make-up artist Noeleen Cunningham: “As a freelancer I was always burdened by a sense of fear about telling people that I was deaf in case they would say no thanks and I would lose a job.”
Getting your foot in the door of an employer is one of the single biggest challenges facing people with disabilities.
Some won’t have the option, but if your disability is not obvious straightaway, the dilemma over whether or not to disclose it at the beginning of a job application process can be an agonising one. Employers say they are making more efforts in terms of disability inclusion, but with the employment rate among people with disabilities still stubbornly hovering around 30 per cent (compared to over 60 per cent for the general population), getting in front of an open-minded employer is all too often down to luck, it seems.
The make-up artist
After applying to dozens of companies, doing the odd interview but still getting nowhere, experienced make-up artist Noeleen Cunningham decided not to disclose the fact that she was deaf when she sent her CV two years ago to EF Creative Studios in Dublin, a make-up agency servicing the film, media, fashion and wedding industries.
“Before, I had gone to interviews and I had told them I was deaf and that I’d be bringing along a [sign language] interpreter, which I think put them off because they assumed that I’d have to have an interpreter with me all the time on the job, which of course, isn’t true,” she says.
I can lip-read well and, on sets where there’s lots going on, I’m very visually aware
The studio’s owner, Emma Farrell, called her for an interview. “When I met Emma, she said to me, ‘I never realised you were deaf, why didn’t you tell me?’ And I said, ‘Well you should really be focusing on my work and my experience, not about the fact that I’m deaf. Give me a chance, I’ll prove to you that I can do the job.’
“And she was like, ‘That’s interesting’, and wanted to know more, what kind of barriers did I come up against and so on and I explained a bit about my work as a freelancer before, how I can communicate, how I can lip-read well and, on sets where there’s lots going on, I’m very visually aware, I can sense what’s going on and when to be ready.”
Cunningham was offered a job and has been working with the firm ever since, applying make-up to celebrities such as Meghan Markle, Amy Huberman and Nikki Byrne, not to mention regularly jetting off to jobs in various locations abroad.
While she clearly had the core talent, it’s apparent that having the professional back-up and support of the team at EF Creative Studios has made all the difference to her career.
“I am very grateful to have met someone like Emma,” says Cunningham. “As a freelancer I was always burdened by a sense of fear about telling people that I was deaf in case they would say no thanks and I would lose a job. But now, with the team in EF supporting me, I can relax about that and focus on what I’m good at.”
Initially, she got along fine, using lip-reading and sometimes pen and paper. “But I admitted to my boss that sometimes it could be difficult, so we worked on that by making up a short, standard checklist-type questionnaire asking what they like, what kind of make-up they wanted, information on their skin tone, eyelashes, and this would make job much clearer and more specific and reduce the risks of misunderstandings. “It’s important for the client, too, as they can see the effort we are making and they can relax. And it works really well.”
Steve Daunt has worked as a researcher for radio station Newstalk for over 10
years, where he currently produces two shows, the TED Radio Hour and the Best of the Hard Shoulder.
After finishing college, he had spent a number of years doing some small-scale research jobs within the voluntary sector before winning a placement with the Department of Justice via Ahead (Association for Higher Education Access and Disability), after which his then-boss recommended him to connections he had at the radio station.
“The performer in me jumped at the chance. Thankfully I discovered I had the skills to back up the faith shown in me,” says Daunt.
Unlike others, the choice of whether or not to disclose his disability was not open to him in previous attempts to find work. “It’s so obvious that I have a severe speech disability, so I don’t have the opportunity not to disclose. In the years when I was doing job interviews, I do think my speech was an enormous issue. Turning up with a speech interpreter at interviews must have been an issue.”
I do think real employment incentives have fallen off the political agenda
At work, he uses email rather than the phone to liaise with guests, which he says works for him, and credits his success at Newstalk to good fortune rather than any incentives on offer to his employer at the time, who has proved to be open to suggestions about how to continue supporting him at work.
“With me it was pure luck. We made it up as we went along. What worked for me, worked for my employer. I am able to work from home a day or two a week. My employer knows I will work, so that’s a mix of trust and open mindedness.
“[It] might be me not actively looking, but I do think real employment incentives have fallen off the political agenda and it’s left to employers having imagination. That has both good and bad sides.”
One support that is available specifically to employers is the Employer Disability Information Service, which has been run for the last three years by a consortium of business organisations and funded by the National Disability Authority, but The Irish Times understands that there is uncertainty about its future when its current funding runs out in December.
Rosie McAdam has been working with BT Ireland at Grand Canal Plaza for nearly 20 years. Having spent over a year looking for work back in the late 1990s, she remembers how hard it was getting her foot in the door anywhere, particularly given that with an obvious physical disability, not disclosing it wasn’t an option.
“I thought if I could just get in front of somebody, I could make a good impression on someone who takes time for me,” says McAdam.
Her luck changed when she sent her CV to what was then Esat BT, and got called for an interview: “But actually getting me in the door for that initial, face-to-face, selling yourself type of thing, that was hard,” she points out.
While she believes that people with disabilities have it easier now in terms of appropriate supports, efforts by employers to be more inclusive do not seem to have resulted in more employees with disabilities in the workforce.
Working initially in customer care, McAdam has been promoted a number of times within BT Ireland
“If you go to the CSO, it says over 70 per cent of people with disabilities are unemployed,” she says. “And that was the same 20 years ago. The numbers haven’t changed.”
Working initially in customer care, McAdam has been promoted a number of times within BT Ireland to sales-based roles. Does she ever think about moving employers? “I like to tell them I’ll be here until they give me the golden watch – unless they get rid of me before that,” she jokes. “But I do have that fear that if I have to look for a new job, would I face the same . . . not so much discrimination, but barriers.”
Furthermore, after 19 years of being part of a workplace where she is popular and well-respected and where the building is completely adapted to her needs, it would take a lot to make her look elsewhere.
“I think one of my fears would be that if I went somewhere else you would have to earn that respect [from her co-workers] again and slowly start from scratch.”