Is it all about mindset? – Interviewing while disabled

I am sitting in a red booth. I am working on my laptop looking up and into the camera smiling. I am a dark blonde haired white woman. I wear a top with Braille print on it and a colourful hoodie cardigan over it. I have sunglasses on top of my head

This blog post was written for the Royal Holloway Careers Centres Professional Skills Team’s special page for disabled students.

It took me a long time to write this blog post: it was supposed to be done months ago. We, as disabled people, are all so different; we have different impairments and conditions, some of us had theirs since they were born, others later in life. How could I give recommendations that would be useful for all disabled students? Trying to find something really tripped me up and I couldn’t write down anything for months. What did I decide to do? I decided to share some very personal experience with you and what I learned from it. This is not a “how to” guide or the silver bullet blog post. These are my real experiences, seen through my perspective, not trying to be objective. At the end, I’ll share reflections with you in the hope that they will help you navigate the experience of interviewing while disabled.

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Anica and I’m a Senior Lecturer in the School of Business and Management at Royal Holloway. I was born with a genetic degenerative eye condition. I have always been visually impaired but only found out at the age of eleven. For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been registered blind.  I’ve been a guide dog user for six years, am currently learning Braille, and have always attended “mainstream” schools. I have struggled a lot with accepting my disability and dealing with the stigmatisation and bullying when I was a teenager. I still find some things difficult to deal with now at the age of 37 but try to turn those into advocacy and activism work. 

Let’s turn to interviews and getting ready for them. I’ve had many interviews in my life: for placements, jobs, leadership roles within the College, and additional leadership roles outside of Royal Holloway. I’ve had great ones and I’ve had horrific ones. So how do you turn an interview into a great one? Many suggest that it is all down to mindset: being positive, confident, and optimistic. I’m not disagreeing that this helps but there is more to it, especially when you’re disabled. I don’t think even the best mindset guarantees or even predicts success. Why? Quite simply: ableism! For those who haven’t heard of ableism, it’s a type of discrimination, stigmatization and oppression that is rooted in the belief that some bodies and minds are “normal” while others are not and, therefore, worth less. So, those who think disabled people are less capable candidates than non-disabled are discriminating, regardless if done consciously or unconsciously. Many non-disabled people are unaware of the privilege they have simply for fitting an arbitrary “norm” body or mind. 

As a disclaimer and for full disclosure, the next bit talks about two of my worst interview experiences. I’m not sharing these to scare or to put anyone off or cause anxiety. I just want to show the reality of how things can go if we face ableist structures and hopefully by doing so, can help prepare you for some worst-case scenarios.

I once had an interview for a graduate job with a multinational bank. The company knew of my visual disability, as I had mentioned it in my cover letter and CV. The interview was interlaced with assessment centre features. The first task was the following scenario: An empty plot in the middle of the financial district had been bought, and I was to come up with three options for what to do with it, and then use investment calculations to decide which one to go for, making assumptions along the way. I knew how to do that. After all, I had passed the exam on it with the highest grade in my cohort. I still failed miserably. Looking back, I didn’t have a chance to succeed. I was only given a pen, paper, and a standard calculator. At that time, I struggled to read handwriting (even my own), the calculator was too small for me to distinguish numbers (especially 0s,3s, 6s,9s and 8s) even with the magnifying glass that I always carried around back then. I tried to do the task with a mixture of large hand-written long division and mental maths.

Of course, I made mistakes. These are complex equations and while I knew exactly what to do, it was merely impossible: I could barely make out my interim calculations, doing my best to remember all the numbers on pages and pages of maths. I had errors in there and I knew it, but I just couldn’t fix them because I couldn’t find them. I simply could not make out what I had written down. Towards the end of the allotted thirty minutes, I felt utterly incapable. The interviewer was dismissive and patronising. I stumbled through the rest of the interview after that. I’m not ashamed to admit that I just managed to get back to the train station before I started sobbing with the humiliation, sense of incompetence and worthlessness that overcame me. Looking back, I know I never had a chance to make it; not just because of a lack of accommodation but because they never wanted to hire me. They only interviewed me because they legally had to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there was mal intent. I’m saying there was underlying—probably unconscious—prejudice against a visually impaired young woman built into the situation that even a perfect performance could not have changed. How do I know? Well, I don’t, not conclusively anyway, but having received a rejection letter once stating that I was the best candidate but “we have decided that we’d rather hire someone without a disability” makes me think I might be right. 

During another placement interview at an insurance company, I got a lot of questions about liability insurance; my personal liability insurance. I thought it was a test of knowledge to show if I understood when it was applicable and when it wasn’t. But that wasn’t the case. The HR employee who interviewed me grew frustrated at some point and just bluntly asked me what she wanted to know all along: If I were to work there and inevitably knocked down and broke their equipment by bumping into it all the time, who would pay for the damage? I told her that this has and will never happen, and I walked out of the interview. I was 19 years old and needed a placement to graduate… 

I had lots of interviews where people saw my talent, my skills and my competence. Yet, I still think the difference wasn’t simply down to my mindset – even though I learned with time not to take any discrimination and became more comfortable with myself – there is more to it, at least I think so. 

Here are some of my reflections and some advice I would give my younger self that I hope can help anyone reading this post.

  • If things went wrong, I blamed myself. I thought I had done something wrong, hadn’t prepared well enough and even considered hiding my disability again – despite the amount of time and work that I had put into being comfortable with openly disclosing it. Reflecting on this, I can see that I had internalised the prejudice and turned it on myself. I would tell my younger self that she would have never been happy at any of those companies that treated her like this during recruitment. They didn’t value diversity; they would never have been the right employer for me. I would have been miserable and never achieved my so-called full potential. I have since learned to put lots of time into researching a company and who they really are. I look at LinkedIn and other platforms to see who works there. I look at CSR or sustainability reports to understand if they actually want to be diverse. If my gut feeling says no, I don’t even apply. This forms the basis of my first take away: never internalise based on how you’re treated at a job interview. The job interview provides insight on the company and its culture: if they’re prepared to mistreat you for who you are, you probably won’t be happy there and frankly they don’t deserve you. Don’t despair. 
  • It took me a long time to realise that my visual impairment and now blindness are not a weakness but my strength. Almost any employer wants people who are creative, adaptable, and persistent. From my own experience, my activism, and research work with other disabled people, I know that we as disabled people have those skills in heaps. The skills we develop while trying to strive in a world not made for us actually makes us more employable. My second take away: your disability is not a weakness. You have something to offer to a company precisely because you move through a world not made for you and that is your strength.
  • I spent years trying to get through school, university and recruitment without asking for any or only the absolute minimum of accommodations. I thought I had to prove to people that I could do it the “normal” way. I would now tell my younger self that she hasn’t yet come to fully accept herself as a disabled person and that this is ok. It takes time and is hard. I know how much emotional strain and physical pain I put on myself to keep up that mask. I would tell my younger self to ask for what she needed to demonstrate what she can do. I would go and tell her to ask for a computer with accessibility software to run the investment calculations and not to try and fight a battle she could never win. My third take away: just because you do something different does not make it worse. Ableism is alive and well and, unfortunately, is pervasive in how ‘competence’ is measured. It is ok to not yet fully accept your disability, but never think that because you do something differently, you do it worse or because something takes longer, it’s not as good. Use the tools you need to use to demonstrate your ability.
  • I have value and so do you. My fourth take away: If a prospective employer does not see your value because your body or mind are not the “norm”, it’s not your fault, it’s theirs. It’s also their loss and another employer’s gain. 
  • My fifth take away: Be kind to yourself. I still have moments where I don’t stand up for myself. It is tough having to constantly fight against discriminatory structures. I would tell my younger self not to beat herself up if she didn’t fight, sometimes she just didn’t have the energy and neither do I today.

I know it sounds cheesy and is a damn hard thing to do but please: be yourself. You will find your way. More and more companies are realising how awesome disabled employees are. You will find the right place for you and along the way, don’t take things personal. Try to figure out what you excel at, what you love doing, research the employer, talk to others who work there, ask for what you need to excel during recruitment, and if that means you can’t do interviews, tell them that, too.

I never envisioned the career I have now. I wanted to do something completely different, which would never have played to my strength and would always have been an uphill battle.  I didn’t fulfil the career dreams I had when I was a teenager or a young adult; but I have a job I love now, different and much bigger dreams, and I really feel that I can make my mark on the world and for our disability community. 

For those of you reading this, I hope this was helpful to you. If you ever want to chat, please feel free to get in touch with me. 

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