Beyond the Check Marks: People with Disabilities Can Make Better Employees

When I was an employer, I looked for or ignored the “disabled” label. I knew other employers that veered away from it. As disabled myself, and currently unemployed, I never know what to check when filling out an application. I have silent disabilities, so I wonder if the recruiter or owner is someone like me or someone like the people I have met.

When I graduated college in 1997, my disability was not so silent. I had a speech impediment, a stutter, and I was applying for journalist positions. I had a wealth of published articles, worldwide. Many of the articles were based upon phone interviews I had done with experts in various fields. I had letters of reference from top people in the industry and respected members of the profession.

The first interview was always over the phone. That was when I was at my worst: on the phone, in a tense situation, talking to someone for the first time. Many I spoke to told me that the position required a lot of phone calls and then hung up on me after the introduction.

“I know,” I thought to myself as I stared at the phone, “I’ve done this many times. You are not even giving me a chance.”

I would eventually allow the disability to defeat me and go into orthodontics. A few years ago, I wrote to all of the companies that hung up on me. You might say the Philly came out as I shrugged out of the orthodontic industry and started to look for a position in communications.

“In 1997, you rejected my application based upon my speech impediment. Take a look at it again. I have updated it. In 2020, I was named “The Educator” in an industry publication after leading my industry through a paradigm shift. I was the first small orthodontic laboratory in the country to be 100% digital capable. Imagine what I could have accomplished there. Imagine what I can accomplish there now.”

Nowadays, I don’t see my speech impediment on the list of disabilities. It is my silent disabilities that are on the list that I worry about, that I am not so silent about in my podcast, “Let’s Unmask Mental Illness.” Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD, and anxiety.

Do I check the boxes or not?

As I mentioned, as an employer, I looked for or ignored the “disabled” label, but I know others do not. I remember sitting with the newly hired COO of the company I was working for who was going through the applications I had gone through of people to hire. He quickly put the applications checked as “disabled” into the “no” pile. I argued. I was overruled. I was eventually terminated despite being the most experienced person in the startup company.

I look for the unquantifiable abilities when choosing applicants. Do they have a good work ethic? Are they able to learn? Can they accept feedback? Does their personality match well with the work environment? Can they do and excel at the job? I learned you could only know these things by talking to someone.

People with disabilities will typically have a strong work ethic because they want the opportunity to prove themselves. They want the opportunity. If they have checked that box “disabled” on the form, it means they have acknowledged and adapted to their disability, that they have excelled in things that most non-disabled take for granted.

I have spent the better part of my career on the phone with doctors, assistants, suppliers and other lab owners. I have given clinics at conferences. As a person who stutters, something that comes naturally to others, fluency, can be a battleground for me. I have been told that I have a wonderful speaking voice. A woman just told me that she thought I was a voice actor after listening to my podcast.

My silent disabilities, such as Major Depressive Disorder, contributed to my success. They drove me to perform at higher and higher levels, excel where others without disabilities failed. There was a push to form a national association for orthodontic laboratory owners for decades. I succeeded and it is now worldwide.

There is the Philly side of me that thinks to the recruiters who once rejected my applications, “What do you think of those apples?”

I am sure there are studies about it, people with disabilities versus those without, but this is just a column based upon personal experience. As mental health becomes more visible, and accepted, we are seeing more and more top executives in the “people with disabilities” category.

There are positive traits that go along with disabilities, adaptations to a nondisabled environment, that make disabled people excellent candidates for which the positions they are applying. I would argue that these traits and adaptations, that do not appear on resumes or in a list of check boxes, need to be viewed more closely.

Me? I definitely need to lose some of my Philly. I also need to rework my cover letter. I think opening with, “Don’t make me go back into orthodontics,” is not the best way to potentially begin a relationship that would be beneficial for the company and myself.

Ignore the check boxes, eat an apple, and read between the lines of the resume. You will be surprised at what you may find.


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