stig·ma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person (English Oxford Dictionary).
Lisa’s story: My views on disability have evolved dramatically. When I first started employment counselling, the agency that I worked for coached people to carefully avoid disclosing any hint of a disability. Jobseekers were counselled to wait for a job offer before asking for an accommodation. I was part of a system that encouraged clients with a disability to spend a lot of energy denying their reality, and likely made them feel worse by doing so. This was paralleled in my own life. I am a person with a severe disability that has stigma associated with it. I didn’t choose to disclose for the first time until my 50s. Now that I disclose, I have freed up energy to be a better employee and focus on work, not hiding an integral part of myself. I also have a far greater appreciation for difference in others. I now encourage jobseekers to disclose appropriately if they feel that their disability is an essential part of who they are and how they will do their job.As employment specialists, we have assisted hundreds of clients struggling to find authentic and persuasive words to tell ‘their story’ to employers. Before discussing a resume, a jobseeker needs to understand their unique value. What is it that makes them stand out? This is a difficult task for any person, but for jobseekers who face barriers to employment – such as childcare or eldercare responsibilities, disabilities, inappropriate wardrobe or lack of work experience (Canadian or otherwise) – it can be a challenge to convey their job potential and value when networking or during a job interview.
To help them overcome these challenges, employment counsellors should coach clients to focus on the positive, even when the barrier is an integral part of the person. For instance, you might advise a client that they do not need to tell a potential employer that they are receiving social assistance. Social assistance is often viewed negatively by employers. Instead, the client can present themselves as a jobseeker. This shift in language is a critical first step in helping clients to think positively about themselves.
Similarly, we know that for new Canadians, telling an employer, “I don’t have any Canadian experience,” is not a productive approach. It is better to reframe this. A jobseeker can highlight their work experience from their home country or speak to their Canadian volunteer experience. When jobseekers make this shift in their language, they are communicating their worth to an employer and may experience better outcomes.
But how can we tackle words that may have more negative connotations? These are words such as disability, mental illness or accommodation. To quote Kat Holmes, (Mismatch, 2018), “There isn’t a robust lexicon for inclusion.” This is equally true about the words we use when we speak about disability. The very ‘dis’ in the word disability connotes a negative, but we have yet to agree on another term. Many of the alternatives are problematic: people with abilities (all of us), limitation (not if you give me a chance), handicap (negative), impairment (something is wrong), disorder (sick), etc. The term disability is at least clear and descriptive.
Avoid medical and legal language
As counsellors, we know some employers are hesitant to hire a person with a disability. When wage subsidies are offered, it may be interpreted as a ‘less than’ value of the candidate. There is not a lot of positive messaging around disability. Most messaging focuses on difference (as a bad thing instead of a driver of creativity) or what people with disabilities can’t do.
Thankfully, there are more and more employers who recognize the value of diversity and are actively seeking to hire people with disabilities. Accessing employers with diversity programs would appear to be ideal for people with disabilities. But 60% of clients (Secrets and Big News, Kate Nash) are still reluctant to disclose their disability, for fear of negative consequences.
We advise people with disabilities to avoid the muck and mire of medical and legal terms that require diagnosis and are framed around limitations and impairments. Stick to the truth (it’s authentic) and only provide as much information as needed, framed in a positive way.
When a candidate says, “I’m bipolar and miss work sometimes,” they are focusing on a medical diagnosis that may have stigma attached to it and the negatives. Jobseekers might simply state, “I need to take micro breaks at the top of the hour. Once a month, I may need to work from home. All my past employers will tell you that I’m very productive.” This is specific, clear and the employer understands what is needed. Remember that both the employer and the jobseeker have the same goal – that the person brings their best self to work every day. It is vital that clients practice disclosing and selecting words that communicate their needs, without sharing confidential medical information. It doesn’t always come naturally (it took Lisa 50 years!).
The guideline we give clients is: don’t talk about what you can’t do. Don’t share medical information. Talk about what you can, just like every other jobseeker. It is hard for people to make this shift, but once the focus turns to a person’s abilities, the possibilities begin to open up.
Use words that are stigma-free
This bring us to our next word, ‘accommodations.’ You may be familiar with the legal term reasonable accommodation. ‘Reasonable’ implies that accommodations can be unreasonable. The word we coach our clients to use is adjustments. And when you think about it, employers make adjustments all the time for employees.
When a woman is pregnant or an employee is sick, time off is provided to see a doctor. Employees request time off to care for sick parents or children. Arriving an hour later, asking for a different brand of cellphone or a new chair are commonly requested adjustments. The idea that we never make changes to our working environment for people is false. This is why we prefer the word adjustment – it takes the stigma out of the request.
Finding a new way to talk about disability
There are multiple other examples of how we can improve our language around disability. Use inclusive and people-first language, avoid negatives (e.g., “suffers from”), focus on ability and ask the individual how they self-identify – but the first step would be to start thinking and talking about disability in a positive way.
Employers are willing to hire someone who can professionally articulate what they are able to do and what they require to do it. The journey begins by simply by finding the right words to build a positive story.