How a disabled woman went to look for a job and found ableism
When we talk about discrimination of disabled people, Ables automatically imagine inaccessible buildings, but ableism goes further than that. Stereotypes and prejudices are often much harder to deal with than physical barriers. Job market and workplaces are riddled with both.
In this series I will present you with a non-exhaustive list (a complete one would be longer than the original scroll of On the Road by Jack Kerouac) of ableist stereotypes that disabled people often encounter while seeking employment or at work.
“The Recruiter” by Edvard Munch
I will start with recounting my own experiences of job-hunting in Bratislava. After I finished Uni, I worked for Amnesty International Slovakia as a Coordinator of The Letter Writing Marathon. It was a fixed term position for the duration of the campaign so when it ended, I had to find another job. I went to several interviews, and they all looked very similar. Over the phone the potential employers were quite nice. They were impressed with my education and my experience and so I felt pretty good about my chances. That was until I showed up for the interview.
In Slovakia we don’t disclose our disability in the job application because we would never get invited for the interview. And so, upon seeing that I am disabled for the first time their faces turned into the famous painting by Edvard Munch. The atmosphere became tense, and they never called me back. What was that? Maybe they just had a better candidate, you say? That’s possible, maybe all the other unsuitable candidates scared them as much as I did, or maybe they were just ableists.
If we will be satisfied, we will maybe give you enough to pay rent
I kept hunting until I came across a job offer for the position in one of the public libraries. I had the required skills and knowledge and more qualifications than they wanted since I had a degree. The only problem was that I didn’t have previous experience in that role. And I am disabled.
The job description included some manual tasks like a bit of lifting, tidying, moving around, taking the stairs sometimes (although the library had a lift), and I told the HR Manager interviewing me that I will manage those tasks without any problem since I am able to walk independently and use both my hands quite well. It was apparent from the look on the manager’s face that they didn’t believe me.
I left the interview without having my hopes up. Later that day I got a call. It was the HR Manager offering me the position, there was a catch, however. “Since you have never done this before we are going to start you as a part-time employee just to see how you will manage,” said the manager. “After three months, if we are satisfied with your performance, we will extend your hours to full-time.”
Living off the half of minimum wage while renting a room in the capital wasn’t ideal but since I had some savings that could carry me through those initial three months, I accepted the offer.
We gave her a part-time job, and she should be grateful
Four months went by, and my supervisor and colleagues were indeed satisfied with my performance but there was no sign of the hours going to be extended. One day the supervisor mentioned to me that she is going to look for another part-time employee since she originally wanted to fill in the full-time role. I suggested that she extended my hours as was agreed when I accepted the position. As it turns out my supervisor knew nothing about the agreement between me and the HR Manager. She thought that I got a part-time position because that was what I wanted. She told me that I will start working full-time from the beginning of next week and went to speak to the HR Manager about extending the hours.
She returned sometime later, looking defeated. She said that the manager denied ever promising that they are going to turn the position into a full-time role after three months. They said: “We hired her for a part-time job, and she should be grateful for that!”
When I later talked about it to my colleagues, one of them said that the HR Manager probably still hopes to find an able-bodied person for the job.
I eventually left the library and the country after a year of working for half of the minimum wage.
This story isn’t uncommon. When disabled people look for jobs, we always encounter the same look of shock after potential employers realize that we are disabled. When we talk about our skills and capabilities, we are often suspected of lying.
You don’t live with your parents?!
When I went to complain about the HR manager to the director of the library, I told him that supporting myself on 265 euros while paying rent in the capital isn’t possible.
“You are paying rent?” the director asked, surprised. “I thought that you live with your parents. Can’t they support you?”
The idea that adult disabled people will always live with their parents is another ableist stereotype. Would you want to live with your parents forever? Would you want to ask them for money for rent every month? Me neither. Adult disabled people have the same desire and the same right to live independently as able-bodied people. But to do so we would need to have a full-time job first.
We aren’t looking for work just to pass the time. We have bills to pay. By employing a disabled person, you aren’t providing them with some sort of adult day-care, and it isn’t charity. We have knowledge, skills, and expertise. Our work has value, and we should be adequately compensated for it.
And unless one of the core requirements of the job isn’t performing hard manual labour, able-bodied people aren’t going to be better at it just by virtue of being able-bodied.
How not to be an ableist when looking for employees
So, what can you do to not be an ableist when hiring someone?
First and foremost, believe disabled candidates when we say that we are physically capable of doing the job. Every disabled person knows best what they can and cannot do. We would never apply for a job that would require us to perform tasks we are unable to. If you don’t know how to swim would you apply for a job as lifeguard at the pool? This is the same thing.
Secondly, don’t assume that able-bodied people are automatically going to be better at every job. Someone’s ability to run doesn’t make them a better activist than me, for example. My lived experiences with discrimination on the other hand might prove rather useful.