Campus & Community

Seeing past disabilities in the job search

5 min read

Harvard Extension School and Perkins School for the Blind join forces on new course

The hardest part of a job search may not be filling out the online application or even acing the interview, but getting your resume noticed by the right people.

Add a disability and the obstacles are magnified. According to recent American Community Survey data, 46 percent of disabled people in the U.S. rated their last experience applying for a job online as “difficult to impossible.” The same study found that the vast majority of disabled job seekers do not even reach the interview stage, despite having the education and skills to qualify them for a range of jobs. As a result, the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities was 10.7 percent in 2015 — more than twice the rate for those with no disability (5.3 percent).

Harvard Extension School Dean Huntington D. Lambert knows this problem all too well. Lambert is a member of the Perkins School for the Blind Board of Trustees and the Perkins-Business Partnership (PBP), an alliance between the school and local businesses and nonprofits working to combat the high unemployment rate among people who are blind or visually impaired.

“One of the major obstacles the PBP identified in our research was the difficulty recruiters and hiring managers have attracting, interviewing, and hiring the visually impaired,” Lambert said. “As dean of the Harvard Extension School, I collaborated with (Perkins president and CEO) Dave Power and volunteered us to help Perkins design, produce, publish, and manage a MOOC that would demystify that process.”

The result is a free, three-hour-long edX course titled “Introduction to Inclusive Talent Acquisition.” Targeted to hiring managers, the course provides training and insight into best practices for hiring and onboarding employees with disabilities, from improving the application process to the appropriate way to discuss accommodations in the workplace.

“We interviewed both people with visual impairments and human resources representatives to learn more about the barriers to employment from both sides of the process,” said Rachel Kerrigan, community resource manager at Perkins. “The interviews revealed a few patterns, one of which was recruiters and hiring managers are gatekeepers at different stages of the employment process. In order to build diverse teams, both parties need to identify disability as a key part of their diversity and inclusion efforts and work collaboratively. We also learned that … there is widespread confusion and ignorance about how to implement inclusive hiring practices.”

To show both perspectives in the course, material is presented through video interviews with visually impaired professionals and interactive, illustrated scenarios representing each stage of the hiring process. For example, the following exercise puts the course-taker in the shoes of interviewer “Dominique,” who is meeting “Sebastian,” a blind job candidate. In this scenario, Dominque is taking Sebastian to the interview location.

Dominique (thinking): He might need assistance getting up there. But is that rude to ask? And would I take his arm? 

What should Dominique say? 

“Can I show you up there?”


“Would it be easier to conduct the interview here?”

 Choose the first option?

Sebastian (relieved): “Sure! I’m glad you asked. It would be helpful if you gave me sighted guide to the room. People usually touch the back of my hand to let me know they’re ready to go.”

Choose the second option?

Sebastian (frustrated): “It’s okay. I can walk to the room. It’d be helpful if you gave me sighted guide.” 

Sebastian (thinking): She definitely wouldn’t offer to interview other candidates in the lobby.

Exercises like these get to the heart of how certain actions, no matter how well-intentioned, can result in further stigmatizing a disabled interviewee.

“We wanted to help people understand the nuances of how to interview and hire people with disabilities,” explained Karina Lin, one of the principal course developers at the Extension School. “We strategized on how to get the Perkins content out in an effective way.”

Effective in this case meant not only instructive, but accessible. “Having a different participant in mind changed my approach to making the videos,” said Greg Aimo, videographer and producer at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education. “For example, I started leaving extra time for audio descriptions to catch up to the images, whereas in the past I’d have cut a little tighter. It inspired a new approach to editing for me and it’s something I’ll take with me in every project.

“Meeting and interacting with everyone in the videos we produced helped me think like an advocate,” Aimo continued. “I’m more aware now of the assumptions people make about people with disabilities, and it’s a little overwhelming.”

While Perkins and the Extension School hoped for 1,000 enrollments in a year, within the first three weeks the course was offered, more than 900 people had already enrolled.

“This enthusiastic response speaks to how many people need and want this content,” Lin said. “It reminded us how necessary this course is for the world.”