Overqualified And Undervalued: The Ugly Truth About Workplace Disability


Discrimination against disabled people is a difficult subject to broach, much less comprehensively discuss. This is compounded by the fact that we live in a society that thinks it actually does fairly well on the subject. Most people cannot imagine themselves actually discriminating against someone with a disability. Like all people who exist within a single culture, the average person doesn’t identify it as a culture.

Discrimination is not necessarily personal, it’s often structural. No one says ‘we laugh at you because you are disabled’, but most people don’t think twice when they laugh at whatever circumstance Sheldon Cooper find himself in.

You see I have Asperger’s Disorder, a high function form of Autism and I experience significant discrimination. We live in a world that honestly does not think it has much of a problem while laughing at the disabled version of Mr Yunioshi.

You might not ‘have anything against disabled people’ but if you are willing to laugh at a stereotype and exclude the ‘weird’ kid with Asperger’s, then I would suggest asking yourself some pointed questions.

The strange thing is, I actually don’t want to have to write this stuff. I would much rather talk about what I am actually qualified to discuss. As someone with a degree in International Studies, a Masters in International Relations, who has conducted research in North Korea, is widely published and ran for Parliament at 21.

I would rather talk about that. Certainly, I am far more qualified to talk about Chinese foreign policy or international employment and education programs than I am about institutional reform for disabled people.

I have held academic positions at two Ivy League Universities, before even completing a PhD and I volunteer as a researcher at Harvard. So when I say that I am qualified for the jobs I am applying for, I mean that I am borderline overqualified.

I will bow to the other applicant with experience who has done more than me but I’m honestly tired of losing out to people who have accomplished much less.

I would like to take a look at the Australian public service’s RecruitAbility program for disabled people, discuss that alongside my own experience interacting with it and use that to outline how we certainly do discriminate against people like myself.

As part of my efforts to find a job, I applied to a range of Graduate Programs within government departments. Considering my education background and experience as a Ministerial staffer, I was fairly certain that although those positions were highly sought after, I would be in with a reasonable chance.

The RecruitAbility program sounded nice enough, it allows for disabled people to identify themselves as such and then request reasonable adjustments to the process of recruitment. It, like so many government programs, looks like it might work. Except it doesn’t.

As candidates entering the daunting recruitment process, the term asymmetric information, does not quite do justice to the lack of information candidates have at their disposal. It is not clear what exactly is necessarily being analyzed so candidates have to guess how their disability might apply and ask for an adjustment from there. Essentially, you tick the box and then it’s on you to work out how you fit.

Given that the process of recruitment is purposefully opaque, essential criteria are only generally described, the whole process sets up someone with Asperger’s to struggle right from the start.

It is a problem that does not just apply to my particular disability; what if you had an anxiety disability, would you be comfortable writing assertive emails discussing your situation?

The process is the equivalent of the much feared ‘what should we pay you?’ question that emerges in the private industry; just as intimidating and you can’t respond with a number.

Combine that with the fact that in most cases you are discussing your potential weaknesses in the recruitment process with the recruiters themselves.

No independent advice is accessible, rather you’re expected to discuss your most personal details with people who are evaluating you as a candidate. This whole thing is supposed to make us feel included? Not so much so far.

RecruitAbility also likes to remind you that it’s a pilot program. It boggles the mind to wonder how, in 2014, we are still at the ‘this is our first shot’ stage.

Initial issues aside, I struggled to know what exactly I should ask for, so naturally, I asked for very little.

In one particular program the only option was to discuss ‘adjustments to the process’, no mention of a disability and this being my first shot, I didn’t even realize I could declare a disability at that point; people with my disability are remarkably literal and there is no ‘big red button’ for you to get help, and no way of knowing if it will work against you if you do.

What I did request was for my communications problems to be taken into account when evaluating me as a candidate. I cited my networking experience in politics, my cross culture experience in very tense countries and my constant election to student offices as evidence that I could satisfy those criteria.

In each situation where I made such requests, they were accepted.

After completing the interviews and being repeatedly rejected for those positions, I knew something terrible had gone wrong.

My initial assumption was that I had made a mistake. I requested feedback so I could find out where I went wrong. Each time, they had failed me on grounds that I had discussed in my reasonable adjustment requests.

My response then was outrage. I networked my way into a position at Columbia University, without a PhD. I ran for parliament at 21. Briefed my State’s Premier at eighteen. I conceived North Koreans to discuss human rights with me, in the Pyongyang airport; anyone here think I can’t network or socialize?

What happened, however, was that evidence was never considered and I was assessed purely on my responses to questions and my participation in group exercises. Both of which are vaguely defined, with questions that require the candidate to intuit very quickly the correct response.

It’s the one major way I could have been evaluated on that would completely obscure my experience and capability.

In terms of a systematic description of where the process failed, I would have to say that it was in the insistence that I fit a cookie cutter idea of a candidate.

They were perfectly fine with listening to my requests, they even accepted them and then went about doing things exactly as they intended.

Each feedback form shows the same issues. Systematically speaking they found a way to use a structure to discriminate in a way that explicitly denied my strengths and overplayed my weaknesses.

We need to have a serious discussion about how disabled people are allowed to function within society and to do that we need to discuss the structures that hold disabled people back.

Be honest with yourself, if you work for the Government, do you have my qualifications, experience and drive?

If you do, that’s great, but if you don’t let’s talk about why you got there and I can’t.

I and many other disabled people have something to offer this society and I guarantee you my particular experience is not unique.

If you are suspicious, read my research. It’s original. Look at my accomplishments, consider the barriers I have encountered and the odds against my achieving any success.

If you can do all those things and still not see the structural forces that hold back disabled people, then that’s fine, but if you can, I would like to invite you to talk with me and others like me, about how we can create an environment where everyone can succeed.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.