Neurodivergent, Disabled, and Highly Qualified for the Job

Editor’s Note: A colleague submitted this article for publication by Lead at Any Level®. She asked us not to disclose her identity. While we have edited the article to comply with editorial guidelines, we have tried to retain the author’s voice.

Few things are more frustrating than being turned down for jobs for which I am highly qualified. I am, after all, a former business owner, engineer, and consultant for diversity and inclusion. But now, companies discount my abilities before giving me a chance.

My Master’s degree in cultural and applied anthropology was nearly complete when I began my search for a full-time job. I had already been consulting successfully in diversity and inclusion. My experience included creating organizational policies, strategies, and business plans. I delivered comprehensive audits to find equity gaps. The robust programs I created moved my clients towards successful, evidence-based outcomes. Then, my life changed when I experienced a major medical event.

Newly Neurodivergent

After misdiagnoses and insufficient treatments, I began designing my own physical and neural therapies. My progress exceeded my own doctors’ expectations. Ironically, I had remained productive even during an all-consuming medical battle. My physical limitations persist, and are considered a “disability.” And my brain doesn’t work in exactly the same ways it used to. (“Neurodivergent” includes not just people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, but a whole range of mental, intellectual, and emotional conditions.) I learned to adapt, structure my time differently, and incorporate new routines. I hastened my own recovery and shifted my focus back to my work.

During this “down” time, I refined my own equity tools and techniques. I worked deeply to unpack and understand the historical origins of racism. I focused my research on understanding and developing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) best practices. Then I expanded my scope beyond the United States to ensure my methods were applicable internationally. With renewed excitement, I updated my resume and began my job search anew.

And years later, I am still looking for a job. I was certain that hiring managers in the DEI field would understand my requests for specific accommodations. They would surely welcome a talented individual with such a wide range of skills and with a consistent track record of success in demanding situations. But even for roles focusing on accessibility for disabled individuals, hiring managers have ignored my credentials and dismissed me as an applicant. As a minority and a woman, I’ve learned to recognize patterns of discrimination.

Obstacles to Hiring

The interview process presents a unique set of challenges. Despite strongly advertised words encouraging atypical job seekers to contact the hiring department for assistance in the interview process, few organizations are willing to truly accommodate us. To navigate the short interview timeframes, I often have to share more than I would like with the hiring manager about my condition. The consequence is losing the position. Far too often, I’ve seen organizations fill the same positions with unqualified or inexperienced individuals, which has caused problems for them.

For example, one organization I interviewed with opted instead to promote an employee from within. That employee did nothing to acknowledge nor address the internal inequalities, a key requirement of the role. Tensions exploded very publicly amid widespread internal chaos. The business’s reputation plummeted. Notably, the internal DEI “expert” left before the dust-up, having used this position as a stepping stone to a promotion elsewhere. I have heard from employees at their new organization that this individual’s bias toward inaction persists.

In another instance, I interviewed for a role for which I was highly qualified. The job description required someone with the skill and expertise to create an inaugural diversity, equity, and inclusion program. I didn’t get the job. A short time later, I received a call from the individual who had been hired instead. Not knowing that I had applied for the role, she outlined her lack of experience in creating such a program. Then she asked for my help in developing her initiatives! She volunteered that her manager had suggested she call me, as I was highly skilled in creating DEI programs. Additionally, I learned that the organization hoped that I would volunteer my services and “mentor” her throughout the process.

Other hiring managers question my interview accommodation requests, despite the medical information from my doctor. I have even volunteered for the organizational doctor to contact my doctors directly. “No, we don’t need that,” they often say. Sometimes they tell me, “if we gave you that advantage, that would not be fair to the other applicants.” In all these cases, the requested accommodations would only make the process equitable for me, not give me an advantage.

Obstacles in Negotiations

When I do make it through the interview process, hiring managers place other obstacles in my path. They tell me I can’t work remotely, even though the job description often indicates that telework/remote work is possible for that position. They even admit that everyone in the department had been successfully working remotely since the beginning of the pandemic! Still, I’ve received pushback from hiring managers that they cannot accommodate remote work for those roles.

I have had hiring managers lie to me about the job salary, despite the range posted in the job description. My perception is that hiring managers use my disability as a justification for offering me a lower salary. I have even offered to be probationary for a fixed time so that I can prove my value at the posted range. But several hiring groups have turned down this option. One role noted that it would require a three-month probationary period. The manager extended that to a full year for me, along with a 20 percent reduction in salary, and a further 20 percent reduction during the probationary period.

I am well aware of my medical details. But I see them as data points, rather than obstacles. Over time, I’ve developed methods to work at my peak effectiveness. Still, employers see my talents as valuable only when they are offered for free or at bargain-basement prices. Companies value my experience and expertise enough to ask for my help, but do not wish to pay market value for my work.

Not Giving Up

My optimism persists. Though, admittedly, I sometimes despair at the overwhelming attitudes of hiring managers. They claim to want the best person. They claim to make decisions based on merit. And they claim to support their own inclusion policies. Despite these claims, they overlook the person they admit is the most qualified, all because I have disclosed a disability. How tragic that so many people like me are “trapped” and unable to contribute at the level of our capabilities! I want to do important work and be recognized professionally for it. Past colleagues and former executives called me a “rock star” and a “trailblazer.” But I now rely on the empathy and understanding of others to fulfill my potential.

You may be wondering what type of role would work best for me. Project-based work at the director or above level is ideal, with occasional travel possible. I excel at creative problem solving, troubleshooting, relationship-building, policy-making, and program building. Nothing is beyond my intellectual reach and capabilities. Though, I must confess that I will not be running the Boston marathon this year.

The original author of this article asked to keep their identity hidden.

Amy C. Waninger reduces unwanted employee turnover for companies that promote from within. She is the author of seven books, including “Network Beyond Bias: Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career.” Learn more at www.amycwaninger.com

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