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8 inclusive ways to rethink your interview strategy for people with disabilities

By Peg Rosen

Traditional job interviewing strategies can be anything but inclusive. That can mean lost hiring opportunities for the 68 percent of Americans with disabilities who are “striving to work,” (either currently working or looking for work) and employers eager to tap into this vastly overlooked talent pool. 

If you’re part of your company’s hiring process, there’s plenty you can do to make your interview strategies more disability-friendly. And it might not be what you‘d expect.

“Inclusive interviewing is not really about How do I make this blind person more comfortable? or What should I ask this person with Down syndrome?” says Claire Odom, senior program manager at Understood. “The bigger question is this: How can we make interviews inclusive and welcoming for every applicant, regardless of their disability or whether they have a disability at all?” 

Rather than looking at job interviews as a way to screen people out, consider them a great opportunity to help screen qualified candidates in. Here are eight ways to make that happen. 

1. Check your own personal biases right up front 

Fear and stigma about engaging with job applicants who have disabilities is common. “We see it more in job interviewing than just about anywhere else in the hiring process,” says James Emmett, a disability inclusion expert and Understood’s lead workplace strategist. 

An important part of addressing preconceived notions about disability is recognizing it — not merely among your colleagues, but within yourself. For example, you might think that a person with ADHD will fidget or not stay on topic during your meeting. This is unconscious bias. And it’s human nature, especially if you’ve had limited exposure to people with disabilities. (But you probably have had more exposure than you realize. A 2017 study found that among white-collar, college-educated employees with disabilities, 62 percent identified theirs as “invisible.”) 

As you begin to explore your own fears and biases, get the facts. Be open with superiors about your concerns. They may offer valuable feedback from their own experience. They can also connect you with a disability inclusion consultant if your company works with one. Whatever the case, take steps to educate yourself about implicit bias. Learn more about the biggest myths and misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities.

2. Adjust your expectations 

We’re conditioned to expect certain things from people we interview: a firm handshake, good eye contact, a ready smile, easy conversation. But people with autism spectrum disorder, for instance, often have trouble with such traditional “people skills.” That may make them less-than-ideal interview candidates by stereotypical standards. 

“Are ‘people skills’ really important for every job? What do they mean for engineers, accountants, or someone who works on an assembly line?” asks Emmett. When interviewing, put your personal social preferences on the back burner. Then do your best to evaluate a candidate’s behavior based on the needs of the position that’s being filled. 

3. Set the stage for success 

Only a small percentage of job applicants volunteer that they have a disability. And by law, employers can’t ask. So how can an interviewer be prepared from a practical standpoint? 

Start with using a space that gives every applicant equal advantage. “We have a room at the front of our building near a parking lot that is easily accessible,” says Kris Martel, vice president of human resources at Tufts Health Plan in Watertown, Massachusetts. “It is away from noise and other distractions. Once a person is there, our hiring managers come to them.” 

If your business can’t set aside space just for interviews, that’s OK. But put some thought into where you might interview job candidates. Is it away from the kitchen and free of odors that could be challenging for people with sensory issues? Can a wheelchair fit comfortably at that conference room table? Book the space as far in advance as possible so there’s no last-minute scrambling. 

When setting up the interview, it’s perfectly fine to ask the applicant if there are any accommodations they will need during their visit. If they request something, your earlier thinking about the interview space should make any adjustments relatively easy. 

4. Rethink interview questions 

How do you define success? What’s your biggest weakness? How do you accept criticism? Abstract interview questions can be a roadblock for many potential — and qualified — hires with disabilities. This is especially true for applicants with autism spectrum disorder who tend to think quite literally. 

“We train managers and leaders to ask the kind of questions that will help them make sure a person meets the requirements for a particular job,” says Martel. To that end, if a question doesn’t directly relate to the core duties of a job, why not ask in a more concrete way that’s fair for everyone? 

Here are some examples of how to ask interview questions in a more inclusive way:

  • Instead of “Tell me about a problem that occurred on your last job,” ask “In your last job at XYZ company, describe a situation where you had some difficulty.” 

  • Instead of “Tell me your five-year plan,” ask “What are three things you hope to achieve in this job with us?” 

  • Instead of “Tell me about your career experience,” ask “Can you tell me about your jobs at company X and company Y?” 

  • Instead of “Tell me about your biggest weakness,” ask “At your last job at company Y, what was the most difficult part?”

Some other tips related to disability-friendly interview questions: 

If an applicant has a disability that you think could affect their performance on a job, don’t ask if it will be “a problem.” Instead, ask the candidate to describe how they see themselves doing the job. People with disabilities learn to navigate the world with the skill set they have. Your applicant may have an answer that surprises and impresses you.

Think about providing an agenda before the interview. “It can be helpful to send ahead information about the schedule, who will attend and what you’ll be talking about so applicants know what to expect,” says Emmett. If providing questions isn’t appropriate, it’s still a good idea to let candidates know what the schedule will be and who will be attending. 

5. Take cues on language 

People with disabilities have different preferences in how to identify themselves. Some like to use person-first language. For example, instead of saying “diabetics,” they refer to “people with diabetes.” Others embrace disability as part of a person’s identity and prefer identity-first language, such as people with autism spectrum disorder who call themselves “autistics.” Those who are hearing-impaired may prefer being called “deaf.” 

The best way to navigate this situation, says Emmett, is to put your own idea of “correctness” aside. If an applicant refers to their disability during or before the interview, follow their lead and make a note in your records.

6. Consider alternate interview formats

Not everyone is comfortable sitting across the desk from an interviewer. And interviewers can’t always tell if a candidate is right for a job while sitting in a conference room. So why limit your interview? There are other more inclusive options you can consider:

  • Invite the applicant on a tour of your workplace. It’s a good way to ease conversation. And applicants have a chance to size up the noise, energy, and physical setup of your facility. Pay attention to how your applicant responds to your workplace. Concerns you might have had about that person’s disability may not turn out to be an issue. 

  • Consider a “working interview.” A growing number of employers are also including “working interviews” as part of their hiring process, says Odom. That way an applicant has the chance to actually demonstrate how they’ll do certain tasks. 

  • Assign a project instead of an interview. Some employers do not even require traditional interviews at all for certain positions. Instead, they may ask a programmer to complete a project or take an assessment test.

There are many ways to make your interview format more inclusive. You will need to decide what works for your company and for the job that needs to be filled. 

7. Respect silence 

Many people with invisible disabilities like ASD and ADHD are visual learners. That means they learn best through their eyes by reading, watching, and observing. Traditional Q&A interviews are based on verbal questions. So it can take a visual learner time to think about what you are asking and to formulate their answers. This can lead to lulls in conversation. Resist your urge to fill them. “Get comfortable just sitting there while giving the person a chance to process,” says Emmett. “Good interviewers embrace silence. They don’t run from it.” 

8. Be yourself 

Yes, being more inclusive means adjusting your interview strategies. But don’t go overboard in your quest for inclusiveness. If you are interviewing a candidate with Down syndrome, talk in the same tone you use with other candidates. “Interview applicants with disabilities just as you would anyone else. If you tend to use humor, use humor. If you are more straightforward, stay that way,” says Emmett. 

Part of being yourself is also acknowledging when you’ve felt uncomfortable during an interview or struggled to react to the unexpected. If someone discloses she has mental illness during an interview, do you ask questions? Say “I’m sorry”? Plow right ahead with the conversation? “Process what happened with supervisors so you have a better idea of what you should do next time,” says Emmett. “Especially in the beginning, inclusion is a learning process.”

Employing more inclusive interviewing strategies opens up more possibilities for your company to connect with talented candidates. Understood can partner with you to make your disability inclusion program as robust as it can be, from recruiting candidates to creating a workplace that is inclusive, supportive, and inspiring to all.

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