|About the presenter: Beth Bienvenu, Ph.D. is a Policy Advisor for the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy in Washington DC, where she focuses on policy issues related to the employment of people with disabilities. In addition, she teaches an arts policy course at George Mason University. She has stuttered since the age of 7 and is a member of the NSA Rockville chapter. She lives in suburban Maryland in the Washington DC area with her husband and two cats.|
One of the most challenging experiences for those of us who stutter is landing the perfect job. Although everyone has difficult job or career experiences at some point in their lives, those of us who stutter must also deal with the fear that our speech will affect our getting hired, our ability to perform on the job, or our opportunities for career advancement. These fears can limit our professional choices and keep us from pursuing the jobs and careers we really want.
As someone who stutters, and who spent over a decade in poorly paid, unfulfilling jobs - despite two master's degrees and a PhD - my own job choices have reflected these fears. But I'm now working full-time as a policy advisor in the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in the U.S. Department of Labor and also hold a part-time position as an adjunct professor at a major university. And I currently feel quite comfortable speaking - and yes, stuttering - in front of my co-workers, colleagues, and students.
Over the last two years I've learned a lot about the issues faced by people with disabilities in the workplace. I've seen how people with far greater challenges than mine survive and thrive in their careers, and I've also seen how their presence in the workplace contributes to organizational diversity and strength. My work in disability employment policy, combined with my life experience as a person who stutters, has given me a better understanding of the role speech plays at work. It's also forced me to peel back the layers of my own fears, just like peeling an onion, and examine how they have held me back and kept me from pursuing my career goals.
In doing so, I've identified eight key tips to keep in mind when looking for a job or advancing in your career. Some are things I've learned from my personal experience and some I've learned in my professional experience in disability policy and employer practices.
One caveat: Although I work for the US Department of Labor, I am not speaking on their behalf or in any official capacity. The advice I give is based only on my experiences as a person who stutters (PWS) and on what I've learned from researchers, human resource managers, employers, and fellow PWS.
Getting Started - Don't limit yourself
I know it's easier said than done, but do what you can to eliminate (or at least ignore) your fears. Don't let your stuttering limit the scope of the jobs and careers you want to pursue. Whether you are just starting your first job search or are changing careers, your focus needs to shift from the fear of stuttering to what type of job, work environment, and kind of employer you really want.
Resumes - Keep focused on the relevant and the positive
Your resume needs to highlight your education, work experience, and skills. This is your chance to brag about the talents you can bring to a potential employer. I've been asked if it's a good idea to mention stuttering or stuttering affiliations in a resume or cover letter. Frankly there's just no reason to include stuttering in those documents - it's not a matter of deceiving an employer, it's a question of what's relevant. Employers want to know what you bring to the position they're trying to fill and stuttering - or for that mattering any other aspect of who you are that isn't relevant to the job for which you're applying - just doesn't need to be listed.
Job Descriptions - Essential functions and the dreaded "Excellent oral communication skills" requirement
How often do we toss aside a job ad that includes the phrase, "Must have excellent oral communication skills"? Before you disregard that job, remind yourself that many stutterers are good communicators. There are countless PWS who teach, train, practice law, talk to clients, give speeches, and win Toastmasters speaking competitions. Remind yourself that you can communicate effectively. You may take 20 seconds longer than a non-stutterer, but it's generally the content, not the style, that is important.
Also keep in mind the essential functions of the job. Many people with disabilities are excluded from employment because employers - and people with disabilities themselves - believe that they can't fulfill certain tasks on the job, such as standing for long periods of time, lifting heavy boxes, or answering phones. In actuality, these tasks are often not essential to the job and can be done differently or by another person. For example, a cashier who normally stands at a register can use a stool, or a person with limited strength or dexterity can use a tool to help lift heavy boxes.
The question you need to ask yourself is what are the essential functions of the job that you are applying for? If you are applying for a web design position, giving speeches is probably not an essential function of the job. Researching the specific job functions, tasks and/or duties of the job you are applying for can help you decide what to emphasize in your resume, cover letter and interview.
Interviews - Go in with confidence
Interviews can be incredibly nerve-wracking for people who stutter. There are, however, many ways to demonstrate confidence and effective communication skills. Being self-assured in an interview can go a long way toward convincing an employer that you're the right person for the job. Employers want employees who have positive attitudes, a sense of humor, a strong sense of who they are, and confidence in the assets they bring to the workplace.
The ADA - Know your rights
One thing that can be helpful is knowing what questions employers can and cannot ask you in an interview. It is certainly appropriate - and necessary - in many hiring and employment situations to assert your legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws that prohibit discrimination in employment. For example, some people who stutter will meet the disability definition in the ADA. Under the ADA, employers generally can only ask interview questions about an applicant's ability to perform specific job functions - not questions about the existence, nature or severity of a disability.
The exception to that rule, however, is when an employer knows that an applicant has a disability - whether because it's obvious or because an applicant has volunteered information. Then an employer can ask whether any reasonable accommodations would be needed to perform a specific job task. But that's it - they cannot ask about the underlying condition. Many employers can be gently redirected back to what's important (and legal) in the interview - how you can perform the essential functions of the job. Some people may want to educate prospective employers about stuttering - but there is no requirement to do so. What you should help the employer do is continually focus the interview on what you'll bring to the job.
Accommodations - Ask for one if you need one
If an employer asks if you need an accommodation to perform a specific job function, you may want to say YES. Many people think of "reasonable accommodations" as something employers provide only for employees with visible, physical disabilities - such as a desk that's raised so an employee using a wheelchair can fit under it. For people who stutter, it can be difficult to determine what accommodations we need without worrying about how it might affect advancement in our professions or be viewed as "special treatment" by co-workers.
When I came to the Department of Labor, my new boss asked me if there was anything I needed to do my job better (i.e., what accommodations did I need). I requested a cubicle in a quiet part of the office because I find it easier to talk on the phone when it's quiet around me. Many employers fear that accommodations cost a lot of money, but the accommodation I needed is typical - it was easy to provide, and free! Employers want to hire and retain good workers, which means accommodations are good for a business's bottom line.
On the Job - To disclose or not to disclose
Disclosing and discussing one's disability with an employer is an issue for most people with disabilities and is dependent on the individual, the position, and the type of employer. Until my current position at ODEP, I had never disclosed my stuttering in a job situation. I had never thought of disclosure as desirable, but I'd finally become comfortable enough with my speech that I thought it was a good opportunity to try disclosing in a work environment. It's been a very liberating experience. I've been able to educate my colleagues about stuttering and in discussing my speech I've found myself stuttering more freely and easily than ever before (which is a truly freeing experience for a covert stutterer!).
For people with a visible disability, disclosure that a disability exists is not an issue. However, people with hidden disabilities such as learning disabilities, depression, diabetes, or a well-hidden speech impediment, have to make a decision whether to disclose.
For someone who is a covert stutterer or who doesn't stutter in interview situations, disclosure is a bit more of a conundrum. It may not make sense to disclose during the interview, but it may be advisable once a job offer is accepted. By informing your supervisor or human resources manager, you will have disclosed it up front so that there will not be confusion when your stuttering decides to make an appearance - and, from my experience, it will happen at the worst possible moment! I've talked with individuals who have had their speech misinterpreted by employers as nervousness, anxiety, and a general inability to communicate effectively. Once people understand that these behaviors are caused by a speech impediment, most will be much more understanding when you do stutter. More importantly, it can help avoid misperceptions about your abilities, loss of promotion opportunities, or even wrongful termination.
Always keep in mind that the only real reason to disclose a disability is if you require an accommodation to perform the essential functions of a particular job. Your resume, and your communications and interviews with employers, should focus on the abilities you bring to a particular position, not on your stuttering.
Perseverance - Don't let fear get in the way
When I look at my fellow stutterers I never cease to be amazed at the levels we have reached professionally. Our ranks include lawyers, doctors, professors, researchers, journalists, scientists, teachers, business owners, police officers and speech-language pathologists. Many of us have amazing careers and jobs that we love, and we got there in spite of (and sometimes even because of) our stuttering. It takes perseverance, a true understanding of yourself, confidence in your abilities, and knowing about your rights in the workplace.
The US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)
(www.dol.gov/odep) - ODEP's website has a number of resources on their publications page on such topics as job seeking, interviewing, disclosure, job accommodations, and employment law (http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/publicat.htm). The website also includes a list of winners of the Department of Labor's New Freedom Initiative Award, which recognizes employers who have demonstrated excellence in the employment of people with disabilities. (Go to www.dol.gov/odep/newfreedom/index.htm and www.dol.gov/odep/newfreedom/nfi06.htm.)
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
(www.jan.wvu.edu/) - JAN is a free resource for employers and job seekers that provides individualized worksite accommodations solutions and technical assistance regarding the ADA and other disability related legislation. They have a fact sheet on stuttering (www.jan.wvu.edu/media/employmentstutfact.doc), legal resources, and information on accommodations.
The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities - This workbook, geared toward youth, has some useful information about disclosure, the circumstances under which you might want to disclose, and some of the advantages and disadvantages of disclosure. (www.ncwd-youth.info/resources_&_Publications/411.html)
What Employers Should Know about Stuttering - This publication by the National Stuttering Association is a great resource for employers. (www.nsastutter.org/subcat/index.php?subid=212)
For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, here are some useful websites: The ADA's website: www.ada.gov
EEOC fact sheets:
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