Image by Reuben Hustler

The Glass Staircase: Invisible Discrimination on a Job Hunt

Originally published on minoritymag.com

"The phrase ‘glass ceiling’ is a metaphor coined by feminists about the barriers that stop certain groups, typically women, from rising beyond a point in a job hierarchy. Recently, I came across an adaptation of the metaphor in a video by Gem Hubbard. It does a great job of encompassing the struggles the disabled communities face when integrating into the job market. The glass staircase.


The staircase can refer to any part of the job, from applications to interviews and the duties of a job itself, that present challenges for a disabled person that a non-disabled person won’t necessarily have to experience. The disability can be physical or mental. The staircase doesn’t discriminate. I’ll focus on the physically disabled experience because it’s my own, and I know it well.


Often, those with disabilities are already at a disadvantage when they enter the job market. For example, my cerebral palsy restricts my balance and movement from the waist down. I’m not going to put myself at risk to fill a role. I experience this in my current job, and I don’t want to repeat that mistake in the future. So, I can immediately rule out the ‘physically demanding’ jobs as I know they’ll only hurt me.


I’m not going to put myself at risk to fill a role.


I’m aiming to become a full-time writer, and I’ll get there, but I need something to fill the interim in the meantime. The ideal role for me would be as a receptionist or a desk job.

Let’s say I find one of those jobs. I don’t struggle with the application process, as it’s usually just filling in forms. But what if I was someone who was sight-impaired or had dyslexia? How would that affect my application experience?


Even if I find the perfect role for me, irrespective of my physical ability, do I declare my disability or not? At the bottom of almost every job application, you’ll find a tiny tick box asking if you have a disability and, if so, how it affects you.


I struggle with this one. The company has put it there to show me that they can be accommodating. It should indicate that they’re willing to help me navigate and pull down some of the barriers the glass staircase embodies. That tick box should make me feel confident, empowered even.


I’m always wary, though.


I’ve ticked that box before, invited to interview for a job I know I’m capable of doing, and then told that I was just there to fill a quota at the start of the interview. My worst fear realised; I wasn’t an individual with minor differences asking to be accommodated within the workspace. I was a minority that made the company statistics look good. Shockingly, I didn’t hear back from that job.



I got my next one, though, and I’ve worked for that company for five years. For the longest time, my mindset was ‘I’ll keep that job for as long as I can because honestly, I’m scared of having a similar experience.’ My current employers have done everything to shatter the staircase for me, and it’s an environment I would be happy in; if it wasn’t for my chronic pain. I’ll happily take on any staircase, metaphorical or otherwise, but I’m sick of fighting my own body because of work.


So, I’m putting myself back out there. I’ve lost count of the number of jobs I’ve applied for in the last three months. It was the right move, but almost immediately, I remembered why I was worried about job hunting in the first place. I’ve been to interviews where the building was inaccessible for wheelchair users. So, if I were having a bad leg day, I wouldn’t be able to get in the building. I’ve gone to use a lift in another place, only to find out it was broken and unlikely to get fixed because ‘everyone takes the stairs anyway'.


I don’t know about other people, but I like to walk without my sticks if I’m indoors. That way, I can carry things. Tea, mostly. Occasionally documents and my laptop. In that case, I always check out the layout of furniture and walls to figure out the best pathway to get somewhere. And yes, I could ask someone for help, but I’m stubborn, and I’m going to make it across the room, dammit.


I’ll happily take on any staircase, metaphorical or otherwise, but I’m sick of fighting my own body because of work.


No joke, I once did an internship for a startup, and I was due at a progress meeting, but as I went to stand, I couldn’t weight-bear, so I ended up wheeling my desk chair over to the meeting area using my walking stick like an oar across the carpet. Recently, I’ve exclusively been applying for writing jobs. It’s a nice change of pace. I’m not getting turned away because I’m a disabled candidate. I’m getting turned away because I don’t have enough experience yet.


Everyone can relate to that.


The beauty about writing jobs is that no one cares if your legs don’t work well. You’ve just gotta hit that deadline. Like everything, not one person’s experience with the staircase will be the same, but here are some of my thoughts on how we can make that pesky staircase more of a ramp, or maybe even a lift. And you best believe it’s a team effort. One person alone can’t change things.


  • If you’re a company that states they’re disabled friendly at the bottom of your website in the small print, take the time to say whether your building is accessible in your job listing. Are there ramps? What are the widths of the doorways? How high are the desks off the ground? Could a wheelchair user use it comfortably?


  • I once saw a job listing that offered an audio recording of the job specs and its documents in different fonts/colours. I think this needs to come as standard. That way, you don’t have to waste time trying to contact someone at the company.


  • When we get to the interview stage, don’t be scared to ask us questions about our needs and how this might affect our work. I promise you; we wouldn’t have applied for the position if we didn’t think we could do it. In my experience, it makes everyone feel better because everyone’s on the same page.


  • Asking for help is my achilles heel. I’m terrible at it, but if you’re in a job and you’re struggling to have your needs met, speak up! You’re already in the door; you’ve proven that you’re enough. Asking for an extra ten minutes on your break because you’re hurting isn’t going to kill you. Neither is asking for something to be repeated because you’re struggling to understand something. Trust me when I say the most dangerous barriers are the ones we put up ourselves.


  • This one is entirely selfish, but you best believe when I get that desk job, I’m asking for a kettle to be next to or on my desk! I’d gain so much more time back from all the long tea runs I’d make."