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To be more inclusive to people with disabilities, employers should start with their job descriptions

Alaina Leary

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.

The next time you come across a job posting, look carefully at the description. Do you see requirements such as “good manual dexterity,” “ability to walk, sit, and stand for long periods of time,” “ability to lift up to 20 pounds,” or “own a vehicle,” even for jobs that seemingly wouldn’t require those skills? You might shrug off your sense of minor confusion and apply anyway. But now imagine you’re a job seeker with a disability—and you keep seeing these requirements in every job you’re interested in applying to.

A job posting for an administrative assistant at the Learning Center for the Deaf describes the role as being “responsible for the operation of department scheduling software” and “maintaining the flow of documents and other information into and out of the program.” It then says candidates must be “physically able to perform” duties including“frequent lifting up to 25 pounds, bending, reaching above shoulder level, climbing stairs, pulling, typing, prolonged standing or sitting.” The same posting also has an Equal Employment Opportunity statement that specifically mentions a commitment to hiring without regard to things like race, religion, sex, age … and disability. How might an employee who can’t meet those physical requirements be accommodated? Those kinds of answers are left for the applicant to wonder.

There are no statistics on how many job descriptions would seem to disqualify disabled people as candidates just based on the language that’s used in them, but it’s clear that it’s an awful lot. If you search for the keyword “25 pounds” on Indeed.com for jobs in Boston, there are 1,581 results. Some of those jobs, such as waitstaff, might require the ability to lift and move items, but other jobs that come up on the search—in marketing and communications, for example—probably don’t.

Employers may be including these physical demands from a template. They also might not be thinking about what’s considered an actual, essential function of the job, nor might they be thinking about which aspects of the job they’d be able to accommodate for an employee with a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against US job seekers with disabilities and requires that employers make reasonable accommodations, including modifying equipment, to help disabled employees perform essential job duties. Still, not all employers do this. A recent job posting for an Assistant Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Bradley University says that candidates “must be able to access non-ADA compliant buildings” for a job in which the hire will be working directly with historically underrepresented student groups on campus. The ad doesn’t suggest that the employer offers any additional accommodations. Even employers who are potentially open to accommodations for the right candidate sometimes use language that the right candidate might find off-putting.

“I have seen some applications with tricky questions, such as ‘Will you need accommodations or assistive technology to perform these job tasks?’ Sometimes people won’t apply if the answer is yes,” says Sharon Rosenblatt, an accessibility technology specialist in New Haven, Connecticut. “It’s illegal to ask outright if an applicant has a disability, but those questions do seem discouraging, even if only meant innocuously.”

Who’s writing these job postings anyway?

Job descriptions are often written by people from the human resources department or, at smaller companies, may be written by the hiring manager. There aren’t any federal laws that require companies to have written job descriptions, which means there also isn’t any guidance about what should or shouldn’t be included in one. Companies often use boilerplate language to construct descriptions on job postings, even when it references basic physical elements that may not be required to do the job.

If employers don’t want to discourage disabled people from applying, and instead want to encourage a diverse workplace that’s accessible to everyone, people writing job descriptions need to actively consider who might be reading these postings.

Access to a car isn’t required for most jobs unless they involve driving, like it might for a delivery driver, an on-site event coordinator, or an Uber driver, yet a search for “vehicle” in Boston jobs on Indeed yields postings for administrative assistants, communications managers, and public relations and online marketing professionals. Many people with disabilities might not drive or own a car; simply asking if they have reliable transportation to and from work is a much fairer question. Similarly, if the physical “requirements” of a job are not actually requirements—if, for example, an organization is hiring a publicity director but doesn’t need that person to attend trade show conferences—then the job description should note that accommodations can be made.

Rosenblatt recommends companies advertise accommodations like flexible telework policies to encourage disabled applicants.

When a job posting includes information about access, accommodations, and flexibility, it can be a signal to applicants that the workplace values disabled candidates—which is the first step toward trusting that they also will value their disabled employees.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.


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