How are disabled jobseekers improving their employability?

Rich McEachran talks to three young people about the barriers to finding employment and their experiences of looking for work

Last year I wrote my first piece for Guardian careers about my personal experience of job hunting and facial disfigurement. I had just finished my MA, and as I had an interest in journalism, decided to set up as freelance writer.

While I haven't rejected the idea of full-time work the going solo thing has given me a chance to do what I love, get appreciated for my writing and develop a strong network of contacts. Whereas I used to see my disfigurement as a barrier to employment, I have since utilised it to catch the attention of editors and build up a portfolio as a specialist writer on culture, disability and religion.

As someone who has struggled to acknowledge that his aesthetic disability wasn't necessarily a barrier, I've always had an interest in the employment experiences of other young people who have physical disabilities. I decided to ask connections via Twitter and email to share their personal stories of being disabled and job hunting. With the latest employment figures showing that only 234,000 out of 450,000 vacancies are permanent full-time positions, disabled jobseekers face a double-edged sword given that in such a competitive job market they may also worry that employers won't take them on due to a perceived extra cost. A recurring question that I heard and saw during my research for this article was: "Why would they hire me? Aren't I a risk?"

So, I asked my three interviewees a series of questions that hopefully reflect some of the difficulties disabled jobseekers believe they are facing. What do they think the barriers are confronting the disabled jobseeker? What are they doing to improve their employability? What are their short-term hopes and fears?

Kate Steaggles

Steaggles has mobility difficulties and has been flitting between short-term contracts and temporary jobs for the last few years. In between contracts, she volunteers for Oxfam and is learning Persian, which has led to her being asked to proofread a book on the medical modernisation of Iran. She hopes that her choice of language helps get her noticed.

She said it's the lack of advice given to employers that's responsible for the myth disabled people are costly to employ, and organisations are less likely to be aware of their legal obligations and how to deal with disabled candidates if they don't have diversity policies already in place. "Employers could actively seek feedback on their recruitment procedures from disabled candidates ... this will help create a level playing field, " she added.

Perhaps more controversially, she said that certain charities don't help the situation, by reinforcing an "us and them" mentality by highlighting the differences between disabled and non-disabled people. From my own experience, focusing on differences sets in place assumptions about abilities and limitations. It is for this reason I never tick the disabled box on applications even though I am covered by the law.

Sarah Mulligan

Having a neurological condition which affects her ability to sit in one position for a prolonged period of time, Mulligan said: "Freelance writing gives me a chance to manage my work schedule around my health; there are days I wake up and don't have the energy. From speaking to disabled friends, some employers don't empathise with this, so I'm hoping it's my writing that catches their attention, not my disability".

The issue of employers not empathising with a candidate's disability is a common experience for people with disabilities; I experienced it myself during my several years working in a supermarket. Though my disfigurement didn't hinder me physically I was never asked whether I felt comfortable dealing with customers (which I was), despite constant pressure to meet sales targets, and so I understand why some employers may be seen as lacking the empathy to adequately deal with disability.

This ties in with Mulligan's fears that "the presumed extra cost is not the only reason an employer may be hesitant. They may also be wondering whether employing me will put pressure on their resources, particularly the training during the probation period. Am I going to be demanding?". She said she hopes her passion for freelancing gets her a position in marketing or PR, preferably with a charity where she can bring her experience of disability into a positive light.

Glenn Moore

With multiple disabilities, Moore said that it sometimes feels like the odds are stacked against him: "All unemployed graduates will worry about what the future holds, and it's easy to get tangled in the same web ... but when you are disabled my experience tells me that you also appreciate that your health can change suddenly, so you just have to remain optimistic".

He graduated in 2010, and hasn't held a full-time job since completing his degree. He's made some money writing reviews of video games, and had the odd part-time job, but a steady income is proving hard to find. He plans to get a copywriting position in the industry, but recognises that it's very competitive, and is hoping for a lucky break via one of his expanding network of professional contacts. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me," he said. "I'd rather they empathise than sympathise"

These candid experiences show that disabled candidates are doing a lot to help themselves, but there is still a lot that can be done, mainly during the recruitment stage. What can be drawn from the interviewees' responses is a feeling that employers don't know how to manage disability. Steaggles told me that she had said in interviews she wanted to discuss queries the interviewer might have regarding her disability, but was told they weren't permitted to do so. She said that this "culture of silence is exacerbating the problem".

Despite the hurdles facing disabled job seekers, I believe it's imperative that disabled candidates are encouraged to showcase their skills in any way possible, be it creative or entrepreneurial, so they understand what they have to offer employers. To improve their chances of getting a job they could apply for positions within companies that are part of the Two Tick scheme, a recognition given by Jobcentre Plus for commitment to disability. Alternatively, DiversityMilkround lists jobs with some of UK's top companies who are committed to diversity.

For those disabled jobseekers wary of what employers may ask in regards to their health, the Directgov website offers useful information. Finally, instead of disabled jobseekers asking "Why would they hire me? Aren't I a risk?", they should be asking "Why wouldn't they hire me?".

• This article was amended on 30 April 2012. The original referred to a book on the "modernisation of the media in Iran" - this should read a book on the "medical modernisation of Iran". These items have been corrected.

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Rich McEachran

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