Mary Rogers was in the middle of completing her Child and Youth Work degree when she developed epilepsy.
The disorder immediately impacted her academic life—she received very little support and a lot of judgment from faculty.
“There were times [in class] where there would be flashing lights on some of the videos we watched and it would elicit feelings of, ‘Oh my gosh, it feels like I’m going to have a seizure’. I would get up in the middle of class and be questioned for why I left and that it was an important video.”
In the beginning, Mary tried to hide her disability… but her disability wouldn’t hide. Suffering 21 shoulder dislocations from falls during seizures meant she was almost always in a left arm sling—making her epilepsy very visible. And when amnesia after her seizures forced her to miss numerous days of school while she recuperated, she knew it was time to disclose her epilepsy.
“I told the faculty that I had epilepsy,” Mary explains. “I was never asked, ‘What can we do to help?’ I had to approach the professor and ask, ‘Because I can’t type, may I write in handwriting?’ They eventually allowed me to do it, after having to get permission. It was as though it was a chore to accommodate me. I felt I was annoying professors for asking these things.”
When Mary started to talk about her disability, however, a possible solution came up.
“One of my friends said, ‘Why don’t you sign up for disability management?’ I had no idea what disability management was. I had never heard of it before.”
Mary sought out the campus disability management office and that’s where she found an advocate. Her disability management representative arranged to have someone scribe for her, allowing her to articulate her essays verbally and have them typed up.
Despite the amnesia erasing her memory of readings and essays and missing dozens of days of school, Mary re-read and caught up and graduated with honors as a straight-A student.
Her story of being unsupported—and her resilience and perseverance despite it—isn’t surprising to many people with disabilities (PWD).
Nikoletta Erdelyi is the Diversity Projects Lead at Magnet, an online platform that matches people with career opportunities that reflect their skills, preferences, and talent—including PWD. She has heard many stories like Mary’s.
“One of the things we hear [is that] in the past, many job seekers declared that they have disabilities, and then sometimes experience negative consequences because of that. The employer might not have been able to accommodate them, or there was just a stigma about having a disability.”
This website, the Discover Ability Network, uses the advanced Magnet platform to connect qualified PWD to companies that want to hire them.
The idea that businesses are actively searching for talent with disabilities, however, is something many PWD have a hard time wrapping their heads around. After all, many have been told to hide their disability or have suffered from discrimination and stigma after disclosing it.
Unfortunately, this understandable fear has created a gap between the hiring goals of businesses seeking PWD and their actual results: If PWD don’t self-identify their status, the companies searching for them won’t find them.
There’s more: Despite their intentions to hire more PWD, many employers don’t know where to find them or how to tread the interviewing and hiring process.
“It’s a little bit of walking on eggshells” says Nikoletta. “A lot of employers haven’t [hired PWD] before so they don’t necessarily know where to go to find the resources and support to help with the onboarding session. A lot of them don’t even know what they’re allowed to ask somebody in an interview.”
She explains that what is needed is a level of comfort for both the employer and candidate.
“It’s providing that education role for the employers, but also for the candidates so they are confident in disclosing their disability and requesting the supports they need to set them up for long-term success.”
There are ways that businesses can send a signal to PWD talent that they are an inclusive employer that encourages the disclosure of disabilities.
The Magnet platform is structured in a way that protects job seekers while providing employers with the access they need to find the best talent—creating that “level of comfort” for everyone.
“When [a PWD job seeker] self-declares [that they have a disability], it actually means you get matched to more jobs because we work with a lot of employers who want to hire people with disabilities specifically,” explains Nikoletta. She stresses that the disclosure of a disability cannot be used to reject a candidate.
“Declaring is just really a tool for employers to find you. It’s not used to exclude you. We don’t give employers the option to post a job and then say, ‘Okay well I don’t want this job to go to people with disabilities.’”
Once a business has demonstrated their commitment to inclusivity, there are many reasons a job seeker may want to disclose their disability:
For Mary, after years of discrimination in both academic and workplace settings, disclosing her disabilities may not initially be the intuitive choice. But learning about the Magnet platform and the many companies actively seeking PWD talent has helped change her mind.
“Knowing that [an employer is] pro-disability and advocates for speaking aloud about your disability, I would in a heartbeat disclose,” says Mary.
“And there’s nothing to be ashamed of when you have an inclusive environment because that’s a part of you. An inclusive environment raises your self-esteem, which in turns raises productivity among employees. It can make the entire workplace flow much better because your attitude is that much more confident.”