Navigating the Academic Hiring Process with Disabilities
By Gail Betz
This article will describe strategies employed by academic librarians with disabilities throughout the hiring process. In in-depth interviews with 40 full-time employed academic librarians with various disabilities, numerous strategies emerged that these librarians utilized to adapt the hiring process to better accommodate their specific needs. Qualitative methods were chosen to authentically capture the nuanced lived experiences of these librarians. The strategies described in this article will address three main themes: structural aspects of the interview day, intrapersonal coping strategies, and interpersonal coping strategies. While this article is written for librarians with disabilities to provide more tools to navigate the hiring process, there are also ways for administrators and hiring committees to rethink their hiring processes to improve accessibility and inclusivity.
Scholarship outlining the exclusivity of academic recruitment processes often describe ways to improve racial inclusion or mitigate the financial burden of simply getting hired (Cunningham et al., 2019). This article will describe the specific perspective of academic librarians with disabilities on how the recruitment process is exclusionary and inaccessible. However, the target audience for this article is not management or search committees looking to improve their recruitment process; the target audience is other academic library workers with disabilities trying to navigate a socially complex process with little concrete professional guidance. The strategies described below offer suggestions for disabled library workers to navigate the recruitment process successfully without necessarily disclosing a disability, as well as how to disclose a disability proactively so that it provides information about the culture of an institution, which can help provide an understanding of the workplace. While hiring managers and library administration can use this information to improve the hiring process for librarians with disabilities, and they should, directly supporting library workers with disabilities is the primary purpose of this research.
A Note on Positionality
It is critical to the framing of this paper that I disclose that I am a disabled academic librarian, and that has informed my research questions and choice to pursue this area of research. My personal primary disability is visual impairment, which carries with it some of the least stigma associated with disability in our society (Lyons et al., 2017). This part is important because it informs how I understand my own disability and worth within our society and within the profession. This also intersects with my identities of privilege as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class woman who can also, if I choose to, pass as able-bodied. It is through conversations with other academic librarians with varying disabilities and levels of stigma that I came to understand that we all handle the hiring process, and especially if and how we disclose our disability status, differently. I wanted to know more about why people made the decisions they made.
This article relies on the social model of disability to contextualize the experiences of these library workers. Kumbier and Starkey (2016) describe the social model as a “…framework in which the focus shifts from individual persons’ medical diagnoses and impairments toward the material, physical and social environments that impose limitations or create barriers for people with impairments…in this framing, disability is an inherently relational, social matter; it is something that happens, over and over, in interactions among people.” This model is critical to understanding that we can improve the hiring process and make it what we, as a profession, want it to be.
There has been a notable uptick in publications about disabled library workers over the last few years and more attention paid to disability and accessibility at conferences as well. Much of the recent literature pertains to the job experiences of disabled librarians: the precarity, hostility, challenges, and, every now and then, inclusion (Anderson, 2021; Hollich, 2020; Moeller, 2019; Oud, 2019; Pionke, 2019). In the summer of 2020, the Society of American Archivists published a robust set of recommendations on including archivists with disabilities in the hiring process that outlines a number of practical steps employers can take to improve the accessibility of their recruitment process (Tang et al., 2020). Earlier literature attempted to convince management that it’s a good idea to hire library workers with disabilities, with the United Nations stating that workers with disabilities are loyal and have low turnover rates, so they are a good investment (O’Neill & Urquhart, 2011, United Nations, n.d.). But there was also an increase in publications about library workers with disabilities in the early 1990s after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, without any known improvement in recruitment, retention, or job satisfaction of librarians with disabilities (Barlow, 1995; Bishop & Beadles, 1995; Gold et al., 2012; Sager, 1998). This trend – to publish about the exclusion of a particular population within libraries and see no corresponding improvement – is similar to what librarianship has seen with calls for diversity and the persistent majority of whiteness within the profession (Hathcock, 2015).
Disability is harder to measure than racial representation in libraries. It requires people to understand themselves as having a disability and to have the confidence to disclose that identity somewhere – with human resources, with their team, or on a national survey (ALA Office for Research and Statistics, 2012). If people want to hide a disability, they can often do so, especially over a short time span like 24 or 36 hours. There is research to show that workers have plenty of reasons to not disclose a disability: stigma, a perception of incompetence, infantilization, and the perceived illegitimacy of the disability itself (Bogart et al., 2017; Gioaba & Krings, 2017; Lyons et al., 2017; Pionke, 2019).
However, disclosing a disability can be beneficial. It is associated with higher self-esteem and disability pride, both of which can lead to self-advocacy at work (Bogart et al., 2018). Disclosing is also required in order to access accommodations – formal or informal – at work, which improves job satisfaction and well-being (Oud, 2018). While it is typically a stressful process to disclose a disability to a potential, or new, employer, it can allow for someone to feel like they are truly “themselves” at work, presenting and living in a fuller identity than they would if they had chosen not to disclose (Hollich, 2020).
After repeated conversations with other disabled librarians about barriers in the recruitment process and the different ways we all handle those barriers, more formal exploration of the hiring process from the perspective of disabled librarians seemed like one path towards improving the accessibility of recruitment. Ensuring that disabled librarians’ perspectives and experiences were centered throughout this process was of utmost importance.
My positionality as the researcher is also relevant here. As a mid-career, white, cisgender, heterosexual and disabled academic librarian who has interviewed at a variety of academic libraries across the United States, I have a specific perspective on this topic and various strategies that I personally use during the hiring process. Based on the literature, and in conjunction with my own experiences and questions, the research questions that guided this study are:
- How do academic librarians with disabilities experience the hiring process?
- What strategies have academic librarians with disabilities used in order to successfully navigate the hiring process?
- What factors influence a disabled academic librarian’s decision to disclose disability status during the hiring process?
In-depth, one-on-one interviews were chosen as the best way to capture the lived experiences of the hiring process. A list of interview questions was developed to answer the above research questions, and those interview questions were piloted with a disabled academic librarian colleague. An application to the university Institutional Review Board was submitted, and it was determined that this study was exempt.
After receiving exempt status, participants were recruited for the study through emails out to academic library listservs and through Twitter. Interested participants were sent a link to a brief demographic survey and contact form housed in RedCAP for security purposes. Various methods of communication were provided for accessibility purposes to ensure that study participants were contacted in a preferred modality. One participant replied that they would prefer an asynchronous interview, and the questions were sent to that person as a text document. The rest of the study participants opted to have a synchronous conversation via either Webex or the phone. In total, 60 librarians responded to the call for participants, and interviews were conducted with 40.
This phenomenological study utilized descriptive coding for data analysis (Saldaña, 2016). Phenomenology was chosen because of its unique ability to capture the lived experiences of minoritized people who have experienced something specific — some phenomenon — and then to describe the meaning of those experiences (Neubauer et al., 2019) Passages of text were summarized in a word or phrase and grouped into three major themes with individual codes nested underneath these themes. While the author worked on the bulk of this analysis alone, themes, codes, and key quotes were discussed with both able-bodied and disabled colleagues. Since this study attempted to explore the lived experiences of a particular phenomena (the academic hiring process), descriptive language seemed to be the best way to summarize and collate a wide array of experiences rife with nuance.
An email describing the study was sent out to several ACRL, ALA, and MLA listservs in January 2020. Participants were recruited who self-identified as disabled; no proof or further description was requested. While many participants disclosed their disability or disabilities during the interview, it was not required, and there were no specific questions asked about diagnoses or symptoms. People reported both visible disabilities with assistive technology or mobility aids such that they did not have a choice but to disclose their disability during the hiring process, as well as “invisible” disabilities that were not obviously apparent to interviewers if the participant chose to hide them. Physical disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental illnesses were discussed.
Participants recruited were currently employed in an academic library setting of any type and in any position. The goal of seeking participants currently employed was to ask for strategies for navigating the hiring process from people who had successfully been offered an academic library position. While this was done to maximize the potential usefulness of strategies that the study participants described to the intended audience of disabled job-seeking librarians, it does introduce selection bias. Specifically, this choice introduces survivorship bias by only interviewing librarians who have been successful in getting hired, rather than sampling all librarians with disabilities, employed or not (Walters, 2021). Disabled librarians who have been looking for jobs without getting hired could have different approaches or strategies not captured here.
It is also of note that out of the 60 people who replied to the call for participation, interviews were conducted between February 2020 and mid-March 2020. Several of the last interviews were done after lock-downs for Covid-19 had begun; and while this did not impact the content of people’s answers, it could certainly have impacted the emotional connection to their answers. Relatedly, since these interviews were completed mostly before the beginning of the current pandemic, no one described any experience with virtual interviews, and no questions were asked about full-day virtual interviews.
Interviews were conducted mostly via Webex. They lasted anywhere from 15 minutes to roughly 90 minutes. All participants were asked the same set of questions regardless of how recent their interview experiences were or if they were disabled at the time of their hiring. All interviews were recorded with participant knowledge, and transcripts were downloaded afterwards. A few participants’ interviews were recorded using Apple’s Voice Memo application due to technical difficulties with Webex, and those interviews were transcribed by a third party (Academic Audio Transcription, LLC, a company that prioritizes using disabled workers). One interview was done by sending the participant the questions in a document and corresponding via email. Since interviews were already being conducted remotely, lock-down for Covid-19 did not impact the data collection process. I disclosed to each participant that I am disabled and gave a brief description of that disability, mostly at the beginning of each interview, although sometimes part-way through, depending on the context. This was done intentionally to express a shared experience and create trust between the researcher and participant.
Themes were broken down into three categories based on patterns that emerged from participants’ responses. The three themes were: interview day structure, intrapersonal coping mechanisms, and interpersonal coping mechanisms. Two of these themes, interpersonal and intrapersonal coping mechanisms, tie back to the social model of disability because they are shaped by societal expectations of interview candidates in organizations like higher education. Intrapersonal coping mechanisms are informed by the social model of disability in that they are often related to a participant’s fear of discrimination and, at times, feelings of internalized ableism. Some people expressed a perception that in order to pass as able-bodied, and therefore as a more desirable colleague, it’s best to self-accommodate and hide a disability from interviewers. How we perceive and present ourselves during the hiring process is informed by how we perceive our self-worth within society.
Interview day structure
Interview day structure encompassed things that candidates were either given or that they requested from the hiring institution. Some aspects were already part of the standard interview procedure, like providing the interview questions in advance, and disabled librarians found these particularly accessible. Others, librarians needed to request, like additional breaks throughout the day. When requesting accommodations like breaks, librarians said that they asked either the hiring committee chair or a human resources representative who was creating the schedule. People preferred to ask someone not on the search committee to ensure more privacy around their disability and were grateful when a form or email address was provided during initial contact from a search committee.
While people felt that having adequate breaks would not solve all their interview-related exhaustion or pain, people wanted more breaks, time to be alone, and they wanted to know about breaks ahead of time:
I think that putting the presentation early and giving people breaks and not just sitting in a bathroom stall, which is what I had to do in a lot of places was just to go sit in the bathroom for a few minutes, so that I had a moment to take a deep breath and think through what it was that I was wanting to communicate in the next session and look over notes…there are a lot of coping skills that I think that we learned to use that we don’t even always realize we’re doing it, but having a moment to just go through all of that in the interview process is really helpful.
Sufficient breaks provided interviewees with the time to mentally and physically collect themselves. Some people wanted alone time to review their notes, breathe, or use other calming techniques they utilize in stressful situations. Others wanted breaks to take pain medication, stretch out aching joints, have a snack, or close their eyes. Whatever people needed to do during breaks, everyone said that having more was always helpful than having fewer, and being able to anticipate the next break would help them to plan accordingly.
Tours contributed to both physical concerns and social anxiety for people with various disabilities. Many wanted to skip or cut parts of the tour because of pain but were afraid to seem uninterested or anti-social. Several people noted how appreciative they were when tour guides gave options – accessible pathways, elevators, seeing a specific area or not – and gave appropriate forewarning of those options. One participant suggested asking for accessible adjustments on the spot as a way to test their interviewers, saying:
I have been known to surprise people during interview tours with no, I’m sorry – can we possibly find a route that doesn’t have twenty thousand steps? Why is this campus so… we’re not in the mountains. Why is this campus so freaking full of stairs? Can we find a less step-oriented path?
People also wanted copies of maps or other campus information to take with them so they could look at it more closely after the interview was over.
Many participants referenced using tours as a way to assess the hiring institution by looking for things like the accessibility of the library building, the knowledge of the staff on the accessibility of the building, and how homogenous peoples’s workstations are. People with both physical and mental disabilities referenced looking at workstations for modifications as a visual symbol of acceptance of differences within the library staff, even if there weren’t visible accommodations or disabilities present.
Questions in advance
Many participants mentioned having experienced receiving the questions in advance in some capacity in prior interviews, and everyone who had experienced this was appreciative. People received the screening interview questions and/or the full day interview questions anywhere from several weeks in advance to 15 minutes immediately beforehand. This helped people with conditions ranging from mental health and traumatic brain injuries to auditory processing disorders and hearing loss adequately prepare:
The first institution I interviewed at sent me the questions ten days in advance. It was really transparent and nice and inclusive and accessible. And because my autoimmune disorder causes, like, really bad brain fog and neurological problems, sometimes it was like, it made it so much easier.
Even if participants did not get the questions far enough in advance to research and practice their answers, being able to see the questions written down in real-time helped people to answer the question fully rather than asking the interviewers to repeat the question.
Opting out of meals
As in Anderson’s article about the interview experiences of autistic librarians, people echoed the sentiment that meals were often uncomfortable and caused significant stress (Anderson, 2021). Some institutions gave the option of not attending meals or provided a variety of ways to eat throughout the day that a candidate could choose from:
Maybe I’m a weird person, but that was something that I think was really helpful, and just leaving, leaving some unstructured time in the evenings. Like, not completely packing it out. Like, not making me have dinner with people, like, both nights so that I could take some time to decompress at the hotel or whatever — that was really helpful.
Participants discussed wanting to skip meals for dietary restrictions, exhaustion, pain, or social anxiety, and everyone who mentioned it was nervous to make such a request for fear of seeming uninterested in the job or in their potential colleagues.
While many of the aspects of the interview day described above the institution can control, they are things that candidates can request as well, whether as a formal accommodation or not. When asked if participants requested accommodations during job interviews, almost everyone said no, and many participants followed up with something like, “I wouldn’t know what to ask for.” The above are just some examples people have asked for or found helpful when they were built into the interview process. Some other examples that were mentioned were: getting the entire interview schedule in advance with interviewers’ names and positions, having options for the type of screening interview preferred (audio, video, text, or a combination), having options for hotels with floor plans and room types available, transportation options, and explicit parking instructions with a map provided showing accessible entrances.
People identified a wide variety of strategies they employed to make the interview process more accessible for themselves. Many of these strategies require self-awareness of the way a disability or disabilities impacts the interview process and having access to the appropriate coping mechanisms that will alleviate some of that specific stress. It is naturally very individualized, but some patterns emerged between both people with similar disabilities and people with very different disabilities who cope in similar ways.
People identified strategies or coping mechanisms that they can use to create their own accommodations, typically as a way to hide their disability from the interviewers. Oftentimes, people mentioned bringing specific supplies: painkillers, magnifying glasses, personal laptops, certain clothing and shoes. After describing a scenario where the visitor’s parking lot was far from the interview site and required navigating an inaccessible route, one participant said:
So I’m gonna take the stair option. Now, I’m in pain. How much medication can I take to mitigate the pain without looking like I’m high, you know so, therein is a whole other thing. How much can I carry? You know, because I need to be more hydrated if I’m gonna take medication so I don’t look like I’m high. So now I have two bottles of water. Now I’m adding more weight to my bag, you know, and so it just becomes this avalanche of now I need even more because of what I couldn’t get to begin with.
Another person said:
So I have to pack a lot of like, normal medications. But then I also have to pack extra medications, because I don’t feel comfortable asking them to try to pick a restaurant that’s corn-free because that’s impossible to find in the US. And so I pack the medication, and I pack clothing and other things that will help me deal with the fact that I will almost certainly have massive digestive issues associated with the food they’re treating me to as part of the interview.
Other people described more subtle self-accommodations, like making sure they sit in a specific area of a room in order to maximize hearing or lighting preferences, practicing meditation the morning of and breathing techniques during interview day breaks, or memorizing the presentation portion of the interview. Regardless of the specific needs, almost everyone described an overarching way they self-accommodated — by “over-preparing.”
Participants overwhelmingly spoke about accommodating for their own disabilities by preparing for every possible scenario and knowing as much about the institution beforehand as possible. While people said they would prepare with this sort of information anyway, regardless of their disability, they felt it took on more significance in light of a disability. One participant, who had interviewed pre- and post-stroke, said:
I was thinking a lot more about like, okay, where’s my hotel? How much time is it going to take me to get there? [What about] from the hotel to the interview location? I would’ve still done that type of stuff anyway, prior to the stroke, but I think it took on a new sense of importance to a certain degree of, like, I have to be comfortable, kind of navigating the space and know that there aren’t any particular obstacles.
People also took on extra costs, like flights or hotel rooms, to ensure that they would arrive early to an institution and could do this type of physical scouting ahead of the interview without time pressure. The unknowns of a physical space raised levels of anxiety for many people, so the extra time or financial cost was an investment people made in order to reduce their own stress and anxiety and to ensure they were as ready as possible.
Physical preparation came up in most interviews in some capacity, but mental preparation also took a significant amount of time and resources for participants. This was an aspect where participants expressed a great deal of self-awareness of their own disability and their needs. In order to handle brain fog, social anxiety, stress, or memory loss, for example, people practiced interview questions and presentations and exhaustively researched the institution beforehand:
I feel that being as prepared as possible allows my stress level to go down. My only known seizure trigger is high levels of stress. Interviews? Yeah, no stress involved [sarcasm]. I try to prepare as much as I can ahead of time. So that helps to lower it some – I try to anticipate possible interview questions, practice the presentation.
Another participant described similar preparation strategies for an entirely different disability:
Usually I have, like pre-written – and that’s the other thing, I will sit down and figure out, like, here’s questions I can ask people that way I don’t have to think about it the day of. So there is a lot of mental preparation. There’s a mental practice, I will practice my answers. I will try to find the best questions I can online that they’re going to most likely ask me and have pre-prepped my answers. So that way I’m not slurring words, I’m not stumbling on words – sometimes people ask me something, it takes me like, it seems where I like, pause, think think think think think, forty seconds later – the answer.
For many people the added stress of an interview triggers or exacerbates what might in other situations be a disability they navigate easily.
Preparing physically, mentally, and emotionally for the stress of an interview — the social aspects, the travel, and the best presentation of professional skills possible — drained people significantly beforehand and afterward. However, everyone mentioned this type of preparation as one of the best ways they could control the situation and cope with it. By coming in with as much knowledge as possible, people remarked that they knew they were the best prepared candidate they possibly could be and that it often got them job offers:
I feel like I also kind of over-prepared in terms of like, oh, my resume and the cover letter and preparing for questions and answers. It’s like, I kind of, I knew that I was going to be dealing with some really, a lot of physical discomfort. So I was like, let me be the strongest candidate out there. I definitely did that.
Strategically applying to institutions
Some participants discussed screening institutions before deciding to apply for an open position. Some ways people judge a university or the library is to look at diversity-related statements and strategic plans, any health insurance information that’s available online, how accessible the library’s website is, and how the library talks about services for students with disabilities:
So I was, I’ve been looking for a couple months and then this was kind of the first job that popped up where it’s like, okay I, I think I can do that and I’ve heard good things. And I think having the knowledge that they were socially aware, and very focused on, like, equity, diversity, social justice, that made me a lot more comfortable about applying there and not thinking that, like, they were at least going to try to be accommodating. And I think other institutions, I wouldn’t have been as confident that they would be.
Community word-of-mouth also informed people’s decisions to apply to particular institutions. Talking to people within their networks about workplace culture, with particular attention to known accessibility concerns, helped people decide if an institution was worth applying to, even if the posted position itself looked interesting.
Participants discussed both career choices in libraries and position choices in their specific area of librarianship as strategic for their access needs. A few hard of hearing librarians mentioned initially thinking that libraries would be quiet spaces where they could hear better, before working in them and realizing, “That’s not happening.” Others mentioned targeting academia as a career because colleges and universities already accommodate students, so one might reasonably expect that they accommodate employees.
Some participants talked more about targeting jobs that had physical aspects that meshed well with their disabilities: either the tasks were varied so they were able to get up and move around frequently or the tasks were computer-based so they were able to stay in a seated position without external physical demands. Some considered aspects of the job that would contribute to their mental health, including if librarians at an institution were tenure-track or not:
One of the things that really attracted me to the current position …is like, it’s faculty, but not tenure track. So, you know, you have to be engaged in the profession, which I’d like to do, but you’re not under the sort of rat race. So that’s really it was really important to me that they said, yeah, you know, on the weekend, they turn off.
Interviews are a social process that require navigating expectations and judgment on both sides. Participants expressed different strategies they use to determine if an environment was a good fit for them long-term or not. Like intrapersonal coping mechanisms, interpersonal coping also required self-awareness about personal boundaries and access needs and the self-confidence to make decisions accordingly.
Navigating social cues
Eighteen people, nearly 50% of participants, mentioned navigating social cues during the interview process. This mostly manifested when people were concerned about physical symptoms of disabilities being judged instead as atypical social behavior. Without disclosing the disability itself, people were concerned that not hearing well in restaurants, asking to use the elevator, or not seeing signage would appear strange and cause the interviewers to question them as potential coworkers in some way. Some people mitigated this concern by disclosing the disability early on in the interview process, explaining that they have “some hearing loss” and might ask interviewers to repeat questions or that they have a difficult time making eye contact:
No, I just, as I say, as soon as I start, I acknowledge that making good eye contact is important and I can’t really do that very well. And I explain why, and then I drop the subject.
However, most people did not feel comfortable enough to disclose their disability strictly for social reasons. The concern about tours and social propriety came up repeatedly for people with mobility concerns and chronic pain and exhaustion. Participants looked for implicit cultural norms in a library that indicated if people thought dieting, tracking steps, or eliminating things like caffeine were important. This type of “wellness” culture was considered a red flag, as participants said it often manifested in being negatively judged for requesting an elevator or having a diet soda during the interview. One participant summarized their thoughts with, “And so, you know…if you get the sense that people are like, ‘e rarely use the elevator,’ then that’s the kind of thing where it’s just like, no, thank you.”
While most people tried to minimize their disability for social reasons throughout the interview process or downplay any seemingly odd behavior, asking for informal accommodations on the spot was also a way for people to judge if the institution was a good cultural fit. Were people easy-going if asked to take the elevator instead of the stairs unexpectedly? Did they bristle when asked to repeat questions several times? Since an interview goes both directions, picking up on social cues from the interviewers helped candidates make decisions for their own health and well-being.
And that and that becomes the…hardest part is, you know, well… where is the line with my dignity, versus, you know, my enjoying eating every single day, and having a place to live.
Navigating the interview process brought up this feeling for many participants in some capacity, whether it was getting adequate time to prepare for an interview, getting travel costs reimbursed appropriately, or having enough rest before and after the interview day. How much is too much to go through for a job? One person said, “It’s this assumption that we’re all comfortable with your parameters and we’re not and I don’t have to be.” If something just absolutely will not work long-term or does not feel respectful or reasonable, having the ability, self-confidence, and self-awareness to know where to draw the line is critical to ensure that disabled librarians don’t end up in environments that will further disable them because they couldn’t get what they needed in an interview and won’t in the actual job (Oud, 2019).
Interviewing the institution
Self-awareness of personal boundaries helped individuals determine if an institution was a good fit. People regularly referenced strategies they used to interview their interviewers, whether on a structural level regarding something like health insurance, or on an individual level, like if a coworker was okay with using the elevator repeatedly.
One person referenced sick leave as a structural concern she looks for, saying:
With HR, I guess, anything that I would, you know, especially pay attention to what they say about sick leave and how that is being handled. And if they say things like, you know, they’re completely inflexible, or you have to always have a doctor’s note…that can definitely send up a red flag. Like, maybe this isn’t the place, you know, for me to be at.
Others looked at the structure of the physical building— how accessible the restrooms are, for example – with one person noting:
I would almost prefer to go on an interview and see that they don’t have a handicap accessible restroom in the building then go and see that their handicap accessible restroom doesn’t have Braille on the sign and has a toilet that’s not actually the right height and has a door that swings outwards but swings outwards in such a way that you have to close it in order to get past it, reopen it and then go into the restroom, you know what I mean? Like all of these things where they label it ADA and then I know that it’s not actually accessible, especially if it’s literally not ADA because we all know that it can be ADA, and still be inaccessible.
People also looked for indicators of workplace diversity of any kind to judge if a library would be more accepting of disability. During tours, people looked for staff of different races and genders for visual clues as well as variety in workstation set-ups. Several people noted that they actively discussed DEI-related work in their interviews to see how interviewers responded, with one saying:
The last time I interviewed with someone they asked me to explain diversity, equity and inclusion and I used a couple different frameworks to explain it. And they were absolutely not familiar, and I asked them what their diversity equity inclusion strategic plan was, or how was it a part of their strategic plan? And it was not a part of their strategic plan. And in that case, I’m done.
On individual levels, people used others’ reactions to requests for accommodations, discussion of work in inaccessibility-related jobs, and disclosure of their own disability to judge how accepting a workplace would be. One participant used her prior work experience with disability law to see how potential employers would respond, saying:
Actually, there have been a few times where I’ve, I’ve sort of mentioned, like, just I have like a background [in] disability law and I try to be really mindful of accessibility in whatever I’m doing, especially now that I’m a librarian. So I, I always take it [as] kind of a red flag if I mentioned that and people are like, well, we don’t really do anything here. And if we haven’t had a problem, and it’s like, they just aren’t thinking at all about, like, the possibilities or the fact that, like, they could have a problem but nobody wants to mention it, just kind of like this disregard is something that sends up a red flag for me.
Several people embedded their disability disclosure, or interest in disability justice research, into their presentation in front of a large group of people. One person noted a particularly positive response in her current workplace:
I actually made it a part of my presentation, and the presentation was to twenty five staff members as well as members from the [liaison department]. So I got to gauge their reaction right then and there and nobody flinched – there wasn’t a single flinch. And that really showed me that this would be a place that I think that well, all right.
Using the interview strategically to judge if a workplace environment, whether physical or social, would be an appropriate match for access needs and well-being was a common theme for all study participants. While people indicated that it wasn’t always an option to turn down a job based on healthcare or financial needs, most people recognized that interviewing is a two-way street where the interviewing institution must also earn a candidate’s approval.
People wrestled with the decision to disclose their disability in full, in part, or at all. Prior experience in interviews and workplaces, as well as the stigma associated with various disabilities were factors that informed people’s decisions to disclose. When people did disclose a disability, they often did so as a way to judge if an institution would be a sustainable, accessible place to work. One participant explained their choice: “That’s why I’ve made this decision to go ahead and be open and honest and out about my disability because if these red flags pop up, if they choose not to hire me, I’d rather them not hire me then move from this frying pan into another frying pan.”
Often, though, people tried not to disclose as much as possible. Some people felt it wasn’t relevant to their ability to do their job while others thought it would lead to discrimination. If a specific access need arose, people would disclose part or all of their disability to get the accommodations they needed: an extra plane seat, different transportation options, a different type of screening interview, etc. People were more likely to disclose a disability if they felt it was necessary to get the accommodation they needed in order to access the interview — if they were not able to attend, or perform well, without the specific accommodation and could not otherwise hide it. One person described their thought process as:
If I, through investigation…find that this is going to be a place that has low accessibility, or you really have to make them understand [things like] no, I’m not walking up three flights of stairs, then you have to [disclose your disability], you have to. Walking tour of campus? Well, we’re gonna have to be smart about those choices. So not to inform them means that you arrive and they’re like oh, well, this is awkward.
If something did not prompt that type of accommodation request, though, participants did not volunteer their disability status. 42% (seventeen out of 40) people said that they do not disclose their disability for fear of discrimination. Several of those people said they check the human resources form box confirming that they have a disability, with the understanding that the search committee doesn’t see those answers. A few were concerned that if they did not check that box, they could be denied needed accommodations after being hired. Even if people opted to hide their disability during the hiring process, people agreed that they do tend to disclose something about their disability or any accommodation needs to a supervisor after being hired:
If it’s asked on the interview form, which it sometimes is, you know, do you require accommodations or do you identify as a person with a disability, I’ll definitely answer that truthfully. If it’s not asked in, during that process, I don’t proactively bring it up during the actual interview. So I guess if they’re proactively asking about it, then sure, I’ll answer. Otherwise I don’t make a point of disclosing it. After I’m hired I do make a point of bringing it up with my direct reports and my supervisor as soon as I get in place, because I think that’s important.
While disclosing a disability strategically during the hiring process can serve as a way to interview the employer, it is very much a personal choice, and anecdotally, people often said they were advised not to disclose. If the interview process was more accessible to a larger number of candidates, it would reduce the need for disclosure to get equal access for candidates with disabilities. Disclosure of a disability is often complicated and fraught, and reducing the need of candidates to disclose in order to get necessary access would improve the recruitment of librarians with disabilities.
Discussion and Recommendations
Aspects of the interview that disabled librarians found particularly accessible can easily be inserted into current hiring practices by the hiring committees that want to implement them. Ensuring there are breaks spaced out throughout the day and that candidates know to expect them is important. This allows candidates to have time alone to reflect or prepare, have a snack, do breathing exercises, stretch, or anything else that people would like to do for fifteen minutes alone in order to continue performing at a high level in a stressful setting. Ideally, candidates would receive the interview day schedule prior to their interview so that they know what to anticipate for the day. If there are insufficient breaks built into the day, candidates can reach out to the hiring committee or an HR representative and ask for more breaks, ideally with a specific ask, such as, “I need fifteen minutes between these two meetings/after the presentation/before lunch.” If this cannot be accommodated, it is something to note about the workplace culture of the interviewing institution.
Details about the tour, if one is included, can be part of the interview day schedule that is sent out ahead of time, as well. Links to a campus map or information about the terrain, the route, and any suggestions on appropriate shoes can be provided ahead of time. Having this kind of information allows disabled candidates to ask for specific accommodations or make their own informed decisions about self-accommodations. It is difficult to prepare for unknowns in a physical environment; the more information is provided to candidates ahead of time, the more prepared disabled candidates are able to be about the situation they are entering.
Providing the questions to candidates in advance also allows people to adequately prepare to present the best version of themselves. Some participants indicated that they got questions a week or more in advance, while others got them fifteen minutes in advance. Receiving them immediately before an interview can cause more anxiety for some disabled candidates (Anderson, 2021) than it alleviates, so it could be most helpful to ask candidates for preferences. Interviewers could ask the candidates during email correspondence if they want to receive the questions a week ahead of time, fifteen minutes ahead of time, or written out in real time. The caveat to offering options like this, though, is that candidates should not feel additional judgment or pressure to pick one or another option; options need to be offered, and candidates’ choices should be respected without attempting to guess why someone picked what they did. In the case that an institution requires that the same structure be applied across all interviews, it might be possible to give everyone the maximum amount of time allowable (i.e., the maximum number of breaks, the most far-in-advance notice of interview questions, etc.).
Opting out of meals for any reason is also an issue that can be loaded with judgment or social pressure. Candidates, disabled or not, have plenty of reasons why they might want to skip a meal with potential employers, and yet there is often social pressure associated with meals during interviews. The option should be provided to candidates to have a meal or not, and information about the restaurant(s) should be sent to candidates in advance, as well, so that they can prepare. If the meals are simply stated as part of the interview day schedule, candidates need the freedom to ask not to participate without disclosing why and without fear of judgment about their ability to do a job based on what meals they share or do not share with interviewers.
With or without the above improvements to interview practices, academic librarians with disabilities can control certain aspects of the hiring process themselves. Creating their own accommodations, preparing for various aspects of the interview process, applying strategically to specific institutions, and looking at how a job will interact with access needs are a few ways for disabled librarians to take more control of the interview process. All of these require a level of self-reflection and knowledge of what works best for each person, given specific disabilities as well as other aspects of individual identities. A few participants mentioned that while they are looking for accessibility from the employer during interviews, they are also looking to see how other facets of their identities would be accepted or not; race, sexuality, and gender identity were a few that came up repeatedly. Knowing priorities and boundaries ahead of interviews can help disabled librarians make informed decisions about what type of environment and job duties will best suit them day in and day out over potentially a long period of time.
Librarians with disabilities need to be prepared to navigate additional, difficult social situations during interviews that their able-bodied peers do not. How to disclose; how not to disclose and “appear in abled drag,” as one participant said; and knowing what red flags to look for are all aspects of an interview that require additional reflection. These components are fluid and personal. Especially as many disabilities can be progressive, what could be a red flag or a deal breaker can change over time and may be different for people with the same diagnosis.
Strategically disclosing or not disclosing a disability, or multiple disabilities, played a large role in participants’ experience with interviewing. Even for people who did not disclose, it played a part in how they navigated the hiring process and took up mental and emotional space. Some people explained that if they have a physical disability and a mental disability, they will sometimes disclose the physical one, which has less stigma attached to it, as a way to judge how the mental disability would be understood if they accepted the job. While visible disabilities are stigmatized, invisible disabilities and specifically mental illness are often perceived as erratic and unpredictable, thus resulting in less capable employees (Pilling, 2012). The contextual complexity of the “to disclose or not to disclose” question cannot be understated. Being able to assess a situation and one’s own comfort level with disclosing can be beneficial in the long run because candidates can get a sense of a workplace culture that would or would not be accommodating, which impacts job satisfaction and well-being (Santuzzi et al., 2019, Oud, 2018). There is a balance between the benefits of disclosing a disability and the risk of that disclosure causing the loss of a job opportunity, as well as the health insurance and financial stability that employment can provide. Navigating that balance is personal and strategic.
This study did not attempt to examine any aspect of intersectionality with which disabled librarians also deal. While demographic information was collected at the beginning of the study, it was not included in the analysis because demographic information was separated from interview transcripts to protect privacy. Analyzing the differences in how people disclose disabilities or not and the specific ways people accommodate for themselves based on race, gender, sexuality, or class would be informative and would have provided extra nuance to this study.
Additionally, only one person analyzed the raw qualitative data. To decrease potential bias, having at least one additional person work on data analysis, particularly someone with a different type of disability, would have been helpful. Including other perspectives in the data analysis phase of this project could bring out other themes that were not originally identified by the sole author.
Further, limiting study participation to employed librarians excluded disabled librarians who have been unable to obtain employment. Some participants were currently employed and disabled but had not been disabled at the time of their interviews and so projected what they think they would do in the future. Instead of limiting participation to employed librarians with disabilities, limiting participation to librarians with disabilities who have navigated the hiring process while disabled, whether employed or not, could have improved the variety of strategies described by participants.
The transition from graduate school to employment can be especially tricky for disabled librarians: accommodations are built into the student experience in a more standardized way than they are in jobs. Figuring out how to navigate the hiring process and then advocate for necessary accommodations at different institutions that handle staff accommodations in myriad ways is frustrating and time-consuming, especially for someone doing this for the first time. More literature on the transition from school to employment and self-advocacy would help smooth that process.
Educating management on working with disabled employees and helping people navigate the accommodations process, as well as actively creating a culture of accessibility, would go a long way towards recruiting and retaining librarians with disabilities. Anderson echoed this in their study focused on autistic librarians, saying “perhaps the most impactful work that could be done next involves library administrators and hiring managers” (Anderson, 2021). Training on universal design, accessibility, and/or understanding how ableism pervades all of our policies would be extremely useful for leadership to enact change from the top.
Navigating an academic library interview with any kind of disability requires significant effort and self-awareness. However, there are many strategies for disabled library workers to use on their own, without disclosing, to improve their experience of the hiring process and successfully get a job that is, hopefully, a good cultural fit. There are also specific adjustments that people can, and should, request from institutions to make the hiring process more accessible.
Librarians with disabilities bring unique lived experience and knowledge to an institution that is necessary to improve the experience of both library workers and patrons. While disability is often left out of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, it is the largest minority identity worldwide and intersects with every other identity (United Nations, n.d.). Any institution looking to foster an anti-oppressive culture must be proactively thinking about disability justice and the recruitment and retention of library workers with disabilities.
Disabled librarians add value to any institution at which they work. We have the same skills our able-bodied peers have and are often creative problem-solvers because we navigate a society not built for us every day. Being self-advocates and setting clear boundaries that respect our dignity is critical and appropriate. Accepting a job offer at an institution is a significant commitment, and we need to be sure, to the best of our ability in a limited timeframe, that an institution will not erode our self-worth through ableist policies and practices. While society often frames disability negatively, or implies that a disabled person is lucky to be hired, the reverse is true: institutions are lucky to have us and the creativity and empathy that disability often teaches us. We need to utilize our collective power and advocate for what we need and want to see in hiring, both for ourselves and for other disabled library workers after us. People decided that the recruitment process in academia should be constructed in specific ways, and people also can reconstruct that process to be more inclusive.
I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for everyone who made this article, and project, stronger: Ikumi Crocoll and Jessica Schomberg for your excellent peer review skills; Ian Beilin for shepherding this paper through the ITLWTLP publication process; Marie Kennedy, Kris Brancolini, Nicole Branch, and the 2019 IRDL cohort for conceptualizing this project with me; and my colleagues at UMB for the years of listening and editing and advice-giving they have put in on this. A profound thank you to the people I interviewed for this project — without their vulnerability and openness, this would not be the article that it is.
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