Interviewing is a potential minefield. Every law student (hell, pretty much everyone) suffers through this ordeal. In fact, one of my friends compared interviewing to prostitution. That might be going a bit far, but interviewing can feel a lot like prostitution. Law students have to face a host of questions before they enter the interviewing room: what to wear (this is especially true for women), how to spin your resume, how to sell yourself and of course, how to avoid coming off as a jackass. Deaf folks like me, there are more questions than answers. How much should I talk about my deafness? Should I use an interpreter? How do I know when a question crosses the line? Well, I don’t have all of the answers today, but these questions are worth thinking about.
To me, my deafness is part and parcel of my being, so I have no problem talking about it. To be honest, if my deafness fazes certain law firms, I don’t want to work there. However, let’s see how long my cavalier attitude holds up after the fall recruiting season. In fact, my deafness is a large reason why I decided to enter the legal profession. I usually mention this when the inevitable question comes, “So, why did you decide to go to law school?” However, this is usually as far as the issue goes because most interviewers do not want to address the pink elephant in the room and they change the subject. Why do they do this? I suspect it is the fear of violating employment laws.
In a way, I feel that banning questions about disability is counterproductive. In reality, only direct questions about one’s disability are “illegal,” such as “how much hearing loss do you have?” and questions along that vein. Most employers think any questions about disabilities are illegal. The fuzzy definition of “illegal” questions about one’s disability usually results in the interviewer remaining silent on the subject. Some people might think that it’s great that the interviewer does not address the question of disability and that ensures an “even playing field.” Unfortunately, I don’t think this is true. Ignorance is usually the root of discrimination and keeping the topic of disability off-limits breeds ignorance. People naturally fear what they do not know. To tell the truth, I can’t blame them. It’s a natural urge to retreat into familiar waters, i.e. dealing non-disabled persons.
My most successful interview was when the interviewer asked me how I communicated in a work atmosphere. To me, that’s a perfectly legitimate question because a large percentage of hearing people still have no idea how d/Deaf people function. It’s a sad commentary on society, but it is reality. Information is the only way to change mistaken perceptions. I told my interviewers how technology has vastly improved the ability of d/Deaf persons to participate in workplaces. Law is a profession that is conducted via writing. Emails have virtually replaced telephone conversations. Phone conversations can still be conducted via relay. I could go on but I won’t. He smiled at me and I got a job offer the next day. Since my interviewer obviously had no idea how I would function in a professional atmosphere, which makes me wonder how many of my other interviewers had the same attitude. That thought scares me more than the thought of being asked inappropriate questions.
If the interviewer does not address the pink elephant, it becomes a catch-22 for me. If i avoid the issue myself, the interviewer might walk away with his or her mistaken preconceptions firmly in place. However, if I press the issue, I come off as pushy and overtly ‘disability-oriented.’ I do not want to guilt someone into giving me a callback or a job offer (which would rarely happen anyways). I lose either way. My most successful interviews, the interviews where I got a job offer afterwards, has been the ones where the interviewers asked me about my disability and how it affects my ability to do the job. These questions might be on shaky ground with the EEOC, but the results are undeniable.
Information is power, not something that people should afraid of. I’m not endorsing the abolishment of EEOC rules, instead, I am proposing a clarification of guidelines regarding ‘illegal’ questions. I’m in favor for a loose rein on questions about disability, but that’s just me.