So last week we talked about job applications. This week we talk about interviews, and when to mention your hidden disability. I did some homework, and according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), you do not have to mention it until you ask for accommodation. This can be after you’ve started work and a special situation arises, as in the case of a woman with multiple sclerosis who did fine in her office until the air conditioner broke down. The heat caused problems with flare-ups so she had to ask to work from home (HERC 2017).
I’m going to tell you about an interview I had last year that still has me shaking my head. I applied for a records director position at my local public port office. The position required a professional certification, and the ad said the successful applicant had 90 days to obtain it. I got called in for an interview by the HR director, who gushed about how much she loved my cover letter. I had the presence of mind to ask what she liked about it so I could prepare to do more of whatever it was. She liked my enthusiasm; she said it “jumped right off the page.”
It was a panel interview, with 3 women—the HR director and two managers I would work with cooperatively. I immediately liked all three women and felt surprisingly good—panel interviews usually make me come unglued because my responses tend to please only one person at a time. I’d anticipated the usual interview questions and rehearsed my responses, and I confidently knocked out one after another.
Then came the question, “Tell us about a time you were afraid and had to be brave.” Immediately I pictured waking up with a respirator tube in my mouth and both arms immobilized, but I quickly pulled up the story of a time I discovered a mistake I’d made at work and I had to volunteer that information to my client and my boss. Knowing exactly how my boss was going to handle it, I went to her office with my action plan for preventing a recurrence in hand. I also waited to talk to the client until I was certain how I was going to make it right.
After that question, they zinged me with “Tell us about a time you had to persevere to accomplish something.” I couldn’t stand it anymore, I told them about my crash and recovery, and how I had to learn to write with a pen again after my hand was reattached. The accounting manager asked why I didn’t just become left-handed, and I explained that my left upper arm was completely reconstructed and the shoulder didn’t move freely, plus my brain injury to the right hemisphere made my left side less responsive to making new neural pathways. Their mouths hung open and a long silence ensued, then the barrage of personal questions started. I answered enough to fill in the blanks I’d left, then actively deflected them back to professional topics.
The ladies took on a tone of awed respect for the rest of the interview, and at the end, the HR director said they had many qualified applicants who already had the required certificate, but she liked me so much, she wanted to give me some coaching for my next interview. She said, “You really buried the lead. I asked you about a time you were brave and you told me a work story.” I said, “This is a job interview, that’s what you do.” She said, “Not if you have a story like yours. You lead with that. Show people who you are.” I asked, “Really? Because I was told not to reveal any potential weakness.” She laughed sharply and said, “Nobody who knows you for five minutes is ever going to think you’re weak.”
I wonder, though. What if the panel had consisted of men, or old-school office types of either gender? The crash story might not have played like it did with these warm, open women. Many women are socialized in the workplace to resist anything personal in an interview or any other time, because that’s seen as feminine (which some people conflate with unprofessional). That’s why I stuck to the work stories until my gut told me it was time to “come out.”
How about you? What has worked for you in interviews, and what do you think has backfired? Do you have a go-to plan for when to expose your disability?
Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC). 2017. https://www.hercjobs.org/disclosing-disability-to-an-employer-why-to-when-to-how-to/ March 14, 2017.