It's been more than 20 years since the revelatory incident happened. It drastically changed my opinion about me and the way I perceive things.
As I approached a store entrance, an attractive young man who appeared to be in his early to mid 20s pulled into a handicapped parking space. He was driving a new sports model car. By virtue of the fact that he killed the engine and readied himself to exit the vehicle, it was apparent he planned to remain in the spot and was not using it to gain access to another space.
I stopped as I passed him to share some information. "Excuse me. This is a handicapped parking space. You may want to park somewhere else," I advised.
"But I am handicapped," he replied.
It was an indelible experience. In that instant, it was obvious to both of us that I had a major prejudice that needed to be overcome; it was an attitude about those with handicaps that needed to be altered in a major way.
Since then, I've encountered others who have not yet had that type of revelatory life experience and speak of the handicapped or disabled in condescending terms and judgmentally dismiss them as not capable of filling some type of vacancy because of their "handicap."
It was interesting to listen to the executive recruiter who met a manager who is a Thalydamide survivor. "He only has one hand," the recruiter exclaimed, "But he can do all the things I can with his one arm. He can drive a car. He can type faster than I do ..." and he went on to describe the "adaptations" the manager has developed in order to do all of the tasks that others do with two limbs.
Considering this recruiter's amazement with the novelty that one with a "disability" can actually be hired for a management position and successfully function on the same level with their peers, the next question was who had recruited and hired this manager. After all, the manager was working for the recruiter's client. This recruiter, it appeared, would have passed on the manager; he would have considered the man as not qualified. However, the manager has all of the qualities one could want in an essential member of your corporate executive team.
The Right Question
Having assistive devices is not a red-flag situation that your candidate is not qualified for the position. It's only an observable signal that the person has a different way of doing the things that many other candidates manage. The interviewing question that should be put to all candidates is not, "Does your handicap require any special accommodations?" Nor should the first thought be the additional costs of having the person on your team because of major modifications to the workplace in order to have them there. Instead, the appropriate question for all candidates who are under serious consideration is, "Do you need any accommodations in order to fulfill the requirements of the position?"
What Isn't Seen
What's interesting is there are many invisible "disabilities" that are never addressed nor accommodated. The only reason a person with a prosthetic eye, for example, is never "accommodated" is because it isn't immediately obvious. If it never comes up in the interview and if the candidate has reached a means of dealing with doing the same work as their peers with a minor, unobtrusive adjustment, no one is the wiser unless the medical records search discloses the matter.
Other conditions that are not obvious yet may be legally termed a disability are emphysema, pregnancy, anemia or heart murmur. They are "invisible" conditions (in the case of pregnancy, short-term invisible) but are not carte blanche total disqualifications of an otherwise qualified candidate. These conditions may require some accommodation provided by the company or, in greater likelihood, an adjustment of some sort by the person with the condition so that they are able to do the same work in the same amount of time (or less time with better results) as their peers.
That was more than 20 years ago. My perception of what having a disability means and how people who are classified as such appear has drastically changed. My idea of entitlement for a person with a disability has also drastically changed.
The pivotal lesson here is to take stock of what you believe a person with a disability means and to what they are entitled. If you believe they are just as entitled to a marketable wage, advancement, and access, if you believe they are just as capable of producing cost-saving and quantifiable positive results for your company, you deserve the opportunity to have them on your team or present them to your client.
Yvonne LaRose was recently selected to serve on the Los Angeles Metro Accessibility Advisory Committee. She was a Disabilities Accommodation Provider in the Bay Area of California from 1993 to 1997. From 1993 to 1996, she was a news reader for Broadcast Services for the Blind (BSB). The service is a private band radio station based in the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind that reaches 13,000 listeners in 13 counties). From the BSB studio, she produced and hosted her very popular bi-weekly radio newscast, "Legally Speaking" that aired from 1994 to 1996.