Eight Dos and Don'ts for Interviewing Applicants with Disabilities

Eight Dos and Don'ts for Interviewing Applicants with Disabilities

Some people are uneasy when they're dealing with people with disabilities—mostly due to misinformation or a lack of knowledge about how to act. Fear of possible discrimination complaints often makes site staff nervous about words and phrases to use, what questions they can ask, and what not to ask when interviewing applicants with disabilities.

Some people are uneasy when they're dealing with people with disabilities—mostly due to misinformation or a lack of knowledge about how to act. Fear of possible discrimination complaints often makes site staff nervous about words and phrases to use, what questions they can ask, and what not to ask when interviewing applicants with disabilities.

We turned to fair housing experts for advice and guidelines that will help you to educate your staff on the proper etiquette, avoid the questions and behavior that can get them in trouble, and most important, to treat applicants with disabilities with dignity and respect.

Don't Steer Applicants to Accessible Units

Steering applicants with disabilities to particular units violates the Fair Housing Act. For instance, one form of steering would be assigning applicants with disabilities only ground-floor units. You can also steer through the questions that you ask, such as, “Are you sure you want an upstairs unit?” says Diane Hess, education director for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.

However, if an applicant has an obvious disability, such as a mobility impairment, and your site has units that are designed for people with a mobility impairment, it is not illegal steering to offer that unit to an applicant, Kitay says. “You can let the person know that you have accessible units available, but you can't insist on it. You have to provide the same availability that you would to any other applicant, so if the applicant says that he prefers another unit over the accessible unit, that is the applicant's choice.”

Use Appropriate Language

Make sure that staff is aware of the appropriate words and language when talking to or about people with disabilities. “We don't use words like ‘crippled,' ‘handicapped,’ or ‘wheelchair-bound,’” says Kitay. Instead, use the preferred language like “disabilities” and “wheelchair users.” “There is a difference between a hearing-impaired person and a deaf person,” she says. “And they have very specific meanings.” (See Appropriate Phrases vs. Phrases to Avoid, on p. 7.)

Keep in mind that the language is constantly evolving and individuals will have their own preferences. So when in doubt, ask the applicant.

Speak Directly to the Person with a Disability

Don't assume that people with disabilities can't handle their own affairs or that they are unable to communicate. Kitay has conducted role-plays by visiting site leasing offices using a wheelchair while accompanied by another individual who was not in a wheelchair. “The agent would spend the whole time talking to the other person, even though it was me in the wheelchair who was actually looking for a unit,” she recalls.

Assume that the person who's trying to get your attention is the one you should be dealing with, she says, and not somebody else just because he happens to be there. When dealing with an individual with a hearing impairment who is accompanied by a sign language interpreter, people often will talk to the interpreter rather than to the person with the hearing impairment, she says. “Talk directly to the person with the hearing impairment. That person may be looking at the interpreter, but you should be directing your comments to that person.”

Don't Assume Problems Will Arise

Don't make assumptions about candidates based on previous experiences, says Hess. “Don't assume that, because someone has a particular disability, a certain problem will arise. For instance, the applicant is going to make too much noise, or something else will happen based on an experience that you have had in the past with a person with a similar disability,” she says. “Respond to behavior issues, if they happen, when they happen.”

Also, don't assume that an applicant with a disability won't want to tour the unit and site. “Don't assume that an applicant who is blind, for instance, doesn't want to see the unit that you have available. There's nothing wrong with asking, would you like to see the apartment?” says Kitay. “Don't worry about using words like ‘see’ to a person who is blind, or ‘do you hear what I'm saying’ to someone who is deaf. Use normal speech patterns.”

Bump up Applicants on Waiting List

If you have units that are specifically designed for people with mobility impairments, and those units are occupied by people who need those features, you can bump up applicants on the waiting list if they need those features, says Kitay. Once one of those units becomes available, the applicant would jump over someone who doesn't need those features.

Treat Applicant the Way You'd Want to Be Treated

Keep in mind that common courtesy applies and that, unless you're told otherwise, there's no reason to treat applicants with disabilities differently than you would treat another applicant, Kitay says. “If you're a hand-shaker, offer your hand. If you're not a hand-shaker, don't offer your hand,” she says. “There's nothing wrong with holding a door for someone. Don't feel that if you have an applicant who uses a wheelchair in your office and you're heading out on a tour, you can't open the door for him. If you're wondering whether you should help someone, the best thing to do is ask.”

Be Consistent

It's important to be consistent with every applicant, says Hess. “Everyone who is interviewed should be asked the same questions. Use the same criteria and the same procedures. If an applicant needs something done differently, he should be the one to bring it up,” she says.

The best way to ask if applicants need any features of accessibility is on your written application, Kitay says. “That way, you're covering everybody and you're not making assumptions about people.”

Site staff should be careful not to have favorites among residents, or develop personal relationships with some residents where other residents may perceive it as based on their status as members of a protected class or on discrimination, Hess adds. For example, don't do favors for some residents and not others. She recalls an instance where one site manager frequently helped an elderly resident by carrying her groceries to her unit. Then another resident requested to have his groceries carried, which placed the manager in a difficult situation. Hess's advice: “Consistency, consistency, consistency.”

Insider Sources

Diane Hess: Education Director, Fair Housing Council of Oregon; (503) 412-6000; dhess@fhco.org; www.fhco.org.

Theresa L. Kitay, Esq.: Law Offices of Theresa L. Kitay, 578 Washington Blvd., Ste. 836, Marina del Rey, CA 90292; (310) 578-9134; tkitay@kitaylaw.net; www.kitaylaw.net.


10 Etiquette Rules for Communicating with People with Disabilities

The following 10 rules of conduct come from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (www.dol.gov/odep):

1. When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.

2. When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)

3. When meeting a person who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.

4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.

5. Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.)

6. Leaning on or hanging on to a person's wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on to a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.

7. Listen attentively when you're talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding.

8. When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.

9. To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. Not all people who are deaf can read lips. For those who do lip-read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes, and food away from your mouth when speaking.

10. Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted common expressions that seem to relate to a person's disability, such as “See you later,” or “Did you hear about that?” Don't be afraid to ask questions when you're unsure of what to do.



Appropriate Phrases vs. Phrases to Avoid

The National Disability Rights Network (www.napas.org) offers the following phrases that are considered appropriate as well as those to avoid. However, it points out that language is constantly evolving and individuals have their own preferences, so when in doubt, ask.



Accessible parking/accommodations

Handicapped accessible

Children with disabilities

Special children

Individual who uses a wheelchair

Wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair

Individual who is blind or has low vision

The blind

Individual who is deaf or hard of hearing

The deaf, deaf and dumb, mute, hearing-impaired


Individual with epilepsy or a seizure disorder

Epileptic, spastic, person who has "fits" or "attacks"


Individual with a learning disability

Slow learner, retarded, stupid

Individual with a physical disability

Crippled, handicapped, deformed, defective


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