Melissa Gates, who is physically disabled and uses a cane or scooter to move around, was actively searching and applying for a federal job. It took her 20 years before she finally received a position as a secretary for NASA.
She said she wanted the stability and the health care benefits that were likely to come from a government job. And she did everything she could to get one: applying to positions online, going through state-run disability organizations, even traveling for career fairs.
“I would always travel down, standing on long lines, just to have them tell me to submit my resume on one of their sites, which I could have already done on my own,” Gates said. “That's how my journey started.”
She moved to Maryland from New Jersey in order to get help from the nonprofit disability employment organization Melwood, which provides employment, job training and skill development services to more than 2,000 disabled people each year.
Though she said she was never outwardly discriminated against because of her disability, she wonders if it may have played a role in her job search.
“All the other avenues that I had tried to utilize to help me get this dream job of a federal career were unsuccessful,” Gates told ABC News. “Within six months, I had three interviews and was able to secure a job where I am now at NASA.”
In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the unemployment rate for disabled people was 10.1% – which is about twice as high as the rate for those without a disability.
The National Council on Disability said that people with disabilities also live in poverty at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities, and account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty.
Inaccessibility plagues hiring practices and workplaces across the country, making it harder for disabled people to get interviews, score jobs and find a workplace that meets their needs.
The hiring process has inadvertently made it harder for some disabled people to prove their ability to do the job. Scott Gibson, who is the chief strategy officer at Melwood, said simple steps can be taken to correct seemingly innocent mistakes that lead to the exclusion of disabled candidates.
Accommodations during the hiring process, Gibson said, could be as easy as having a quieter space in a job fair to talk with candidates, or training hiring managers about unconscious bias that could affect their perception of disabled people.
“This old way of doing things isn't perfect and maybe if we try something new, you'll find out that great talent is right in front of you,” said Gibson.
And even when people are hired, workplaces may not be the most accommodating to disabled and neurodivergent people. "Neurodivergent" refers to people whose brains may function in a different way than what is considered typical, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Before COVID-19, many workplaces were not designed with accessibility in mind.
For example, Gibson said noisy, crowded office spaces may be distracting to people with audio hypersensitivities, while a lack of a remote work can exclude or endanger immunocompromised people or people who are physically disabled.
Some office spaces may also be unwelcoming to people with wheelchairs or canes. Some disabilities require other accommodations, such as captioning during video calls or technology to enlarge text on screen.
COVID-19, however, has served as the beginning of a new era for accessibility for employees and employers.
“One of the great things that came out of COVID is it made many employers realize how easy it is to be accessible,” Gibson said.
With accessible hiring practices, people like Gates can get a fair shot at jobs across industries.
“Give us a chance,” Gates said. “We'll show you what we can do.”