How I feel about “disclosure” in job interviews

By Nikoletta Erdelyi

Until recently, the word “disclosure” had little or no importance to me. I was born with a rare disability called arthrogryposis and I grew up using a manual wheelchair to get around. Regardless, at 17 years old, I was hired for my first paid role.

Although a regular teenage job such as making frothy drinks at a local coffee shop was out of the question for me, a summer program called Youth@Work helped me to gain the work experience I might have otherwise missed. I assisted in Holland Bloorview’s therapeutic playroom and then completed a placement at a local women’s shelter, helping with outreach projects.

Hours under my belt
By the time I was 19, I was working part-time on all three of the hospital’s inpatient units, leading the Computers For Kids program. My job was to give children bedside Internet access so they could keep in touch with friends and to help them with online games to make the experience of hospitalization less isolating.

Having undergone six orthopedic surgeries as a child, I understood that “being alone” feeling all too well, and it gave me a unique connection with the kids. We would share stories of selecting the perfect colour for a cast, what they want to do when they grow up and what it’s like to use the transit system.

In addition, the job gave me a rare chance to learn about media relations, workshop development and program evaluation—skills that proved to be invaluable when I began my first year of communication studies at York University.

Eventually, I moved on to explore the world of theatre with Canadian playwright Judith Thompson. I spent a full year immersed in the world of advocacy, performing in a play called Borne on Toronto’s very own Soulpepper stage. The experience was exhilarating and cathartic. I had always been a closet poet, and this was my moment of opening up to the world and sharing my lived experience of growing up with a disability, along with others who had sustained spinal cord injuries.

Following that, I completed a marketing internship with SCI Ontario, promoting the employment services program through social media channels. Needless to say, by the time I graduated with my degree in the spring of 2016, I had more relevant work experience under my belt than most of my peers.

Starting the job hunt
Despite all my experience, what followed was a long struggle of submitting and resubmitting hundreds of job applications for full-time work, day in and day out. I was regularly invited to interviews with reputable organizations. By the third interview, I was confidently breezing through the questions without ever mentioning the word “disability.” Afterwards, away I would wheel, waiting for that “welcome aboard” phone call that never came.

As the rejections piled up, I asked myself if I was doing something wrong. I knew I had the experience the companies were looking for. I had a degree. I was more than enthusiastic about starting work full time and I felt ready to make a positive difference in the world. Could my disability be getting in the way?

Over the years I had delivered workshops on the topic of disability disclosure but, on a personal level, the need to “disclose” or talk about my disability in a job interview was foreign to me. When I worked in a rehab centre, I had never felt the need to talk or even think about it. My use of a wheelchair didn’t affect my ability to do the job, and I blended into an organizational culture that included people of all abilities. Furthermore, I didn’t need accommodations—I could easily wheel around the centre and fit under the desks.

Breaking the ice

To this day, I can’t be certain if my disability—or perceived limitations because of it—stopped me from landing a job offer. But I have come to realize that disclosure is not necessarily tied to needing accommodations. Sometimes disclosure can “break the ice” wrapped around one’s disability and start a discussion about what a person can and can’t do. Today, I’m more sure than ever that having such a discussion is good for everyone. It breaks down barriers, stops misconceptions and clears the air. In addition, it puts the applicant in a position to tell their own story clearly, honestly and without being misrepresented as their résumé moves up the ladder. With hindsight, I could have used a simple few sentences such as: “As you see, I use a wheelchair. It doesn’t affect my ability to do the job and I thrive in a busy and fast-paced environment. I’m healthy, don’t require accommodations and often prefer to transfer into a regular chair in an office or boardroom. If you have any questions about how I will or am able to perform a specific part of the job,
I’d be happy to answer them.”

Today, I am happily employed and surrounded by like-minded people who are passionate about changing the world of employment for the better. But, looking back at the 13 interviews I attended during the year of my job hunt, I wish that I had taken the initiative to break the ice and melt the long built-up perception that people with disabilities are not capable of working in mid-level positions that demand high amounts of talent and energy.

Nikoletta Erdelyi is currently working at Ryerson University as the diversity projects lead for Magnet (magnet.today). She is a recipient of an Ontario Arts Council grant and is getting ready to publish her first novel, The Electronic Sticky-Notes That Saved My Life.