Most people remember their first job interview, I certainly do.
The interview took place in an upstairs room. The stairs were poorly lit and had no tactile markers to indicate where the steps were at all.
At the time, I was a long cane user before my first guide dog, and out of nerves I lost my footing and fell face forward on the stairs.
The people interviewing me just stood and stared, watching me as I shakily got to my feet and made my way into the interview room.
With burning cheeks, I sat with a feeling that I was being scrutinised, knowing for sure that my blunder had decided my fate before I’d even had a chance to open my mouth.
It was an accident that anyone could make. But not necessarily one that could cost them the role.
I didn’t get the job.
During the endless scrolling on job websites that is my life since graduation, there are lots of reasons not to apply for certain roles.
But for me, too often the problem is that I simply can’t read the details of the advert through no fault of my own.
As someone who is severely sight impaired and looking for work, it’s an almost daily occurrence - seeing websites with small text, poor colour contrast or that aren’t compatible with screen reading devices.
I have a congenital condition called Septo Optic Dysplasia, meaning that I have very limited eyesight due to damaged optic nerves and Nystagmus, which causes me to have trouble focusing on things like text.
On top of that, I have a complex endocrine condition that impacts my immune system – so looking for work has always been a difficult issue.
My illness can fluctuate from day to day and my sight loss means that I require accessible adjustments like computer software to enlarge my screen or provisions to be made for my guide dog.
But when I voice my needs to others I somehow feel as if I’m being made to appear as if I’m incapable of doing anything independently.
I recall one of my earliest experiences when I tried to get work experience in a charity shop, I was turned down because I was told that having a guide dog in the shop with me working would be a liability.
They also said that it probably wouldn’t be safe for me to use the cleaning equipment and that they didn’t think it would be a good fit for me.
They wrote me off before they had even given me a chance to try.
Contrary to what they believed, my guide dog is trained to behave when out in public and I am more than capable of using a hoover!
To say I was shocked would be a major understatement. I was made to feel like I was incapable of doing even the simplest of tasks.
Nothing could be further from the truth – I have a degree and a masters, both of which I got through years of hard work and independent study.
I have proven I can hold down a job – and am currently working in retail, not an easy feat when you have limited eyesight. But I still do it with the help of an understanding team and with a few adjustments to my working setup.
Yet there’s a part of me that always feels an overwhelming sense of apprehension every time I get to that section of an application where it asks me to declare if I have a disability, worrying I could be discriminated against.
As logical or illogical as this fear might be, it’s how my experiences growing up disabled have conditioned me to feel.
This year alone I’ve probably applied for around 120 jobs already – all to do with copywriting, journalism, PR roles and digital content creation.
I search and apply for jobs daily and yet I’ve only had about five interviews in the last six years.
On the odd occasion when I haven’t disclosed my disability, I’ve coincidentally got an interview, but the situation is made even more uncomfortable when interviewers see me walk in with my guide dog.
Now I’ve come to realise that employers will need to know at some point whether it’s during the application or the interview stage, but there’s always a small part of me that tries to convince myself otherwise.
I often feel that we as disabled people can’t exist as just humans who are allowed to make mistakes.
My experience of falling on the stairs may have been perceived differently if I wasn’t disabled - a minor hiccup or a funny story for the interviewer.
But it shouldn’t have given them cause to question if I was competent enough to even do basic things like using stairs safely.
A friend of mine was asked in an interview intrusive questions about how she would use the toilet or get lunch.
Her response was simply ‘the same as you but with my guide dog.’
These questions didn’t have any relevance to her being able to do the role or invite her to talk about her experience, her education, or her impressive portfolio, an employer was just too fixated on her disability to ask her anything broader.
Luckily, I’ve not had an interview experience quite as drastic as this one.
Disabled people do have issues performing tasks, but that is not our fault and is often down to a lack of accessibility – frankly, the world hasn’t been built to meet all our needs.
Navigating a world like this can make people great problem solvers – isn’t this one of the most desirable qualities employers look for in a candidate?
I’ve had support from several sight loss charities in the past, offering practical help with applications.
But so far, my endeavours to pursue a full-time career haven’t been successful.
Ultimately, I think that employers need to be working to ensure they offer an accessible and inclusive job application experience to disabled candidates.
The first step would be to ensure that their websites are accessible for people with access needs like screen readers.
Companies also need to show how they are working to be more inclusive and be willing to give disabled people feedback when they ask for it.
Since Covid, the world has grown acclimatised to working from home via Zoom meetings. It taught us how to be comfortable working from home to safeguard our health, and I know this was game changing for many disabled people wanting to get into work, who previously wouldn’t have due to their health.
Employers need to keep this option well and firmly on the table for disabled employees, even as there’s a push to ‘get back to the office.’
In the current climate, finding employment is hard for disabled and non-disabled people alike, and I try to contextualise my struggles knowing some jobs have hundreds of applicants.
But if employers worked to eliminate some of the very real and legitimate worries and difficulties people like me face, it might level out the playing field to give everyone an equal chance when applying.
As a disabled candidate all I seek is to be given the chance to be seen equally to other non-disabled candidates.
I’ll continue to advocate for this with every opportunity I get.
Because advocacy is a job in its own right.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Ross.Mccafferty@metro.co.uk.
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