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WORKFORCE DIVERSITY: Hiring and Recruiting

Interviewing Applicants with Disabilities

Even the most seasoned interviewers may feel less confident when interviewing an applicant who happens to have a disability. This might be due to limited experience working and interacting with people with disabilities or, perhaps, because there is confusion around the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines and fear of saying the "wrong thing."

This section is designed to boost your knowledge base and confidence so that you can successfully conduct an interview with a person with a disability. Some general communication tips, guidelines on special considerations for interacting with someone who has a particular disability and points to remember during the interview process follow.

General Guidelines for Courteous and Effective Communications:

  • Always use "people first" language. This means always putting the person first and disability second when communicating; mention the person first and any relevant description of a disability second. For example, instead of saying a traumatic brain injured person or mentally retarded people, say a person who has a traumatic brain injury or people who have mental retardation. Other examples include saying "the woman who is blind" instead of "the blind woman" or "Stuart who has a spinal cord injury" instead of "paralyzed Stuart."

  • People with disabilities are individuals. Emphasize abilities instead of limitations. For example, say "uses a wheelchair" instead of "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair-bound" or "wheelchair-dependent." Also, use "disability"? rather than "disabled"? when referring to a person with a disability.

  • The word "handicapped" is antiquated and should not be used. The word "handicapped" derives from the phrase "cap in hand," referring to a beggar, and represents an unfavorable image. Other terms that should not be used include the following: retarded, mentally deficient, cripple, spastic, deaf and dumb or mentally handicapped.

  • When you are discussing the person do not reference their disability unless this information is relevant to the conversation. Just as it is not always necessary to mention the color of a person's skin, hair or eyes, it is also not always necessary to mention that a person has a disability.

  • It is okay to use everyday phrases that may relate to the person's disability. For instance it is fine to say, "Let's walk over here," to someone using a wheelchair or, ?It was nice to see you,? to someone who is blind.

  • Always talk to the person. If someone accompanies the person with a disability to an interview do not talk through the companion, unless the applicant requests it. For example, a young female with poor communication skills will ask a job coach or personal service assistant to clarify what she is trying to express to the interviewer or to a supervisor.

Tips for Interacting with People with Different Disabilities:

Visual - Some individuals will not be able to see; others may have limited sight that is oftentimes distorted.

  • Simply ask the person if you may be of help.

  • Clearly state who you are as you approach the person.

  • If you need to move to another area, offer to serve as a guide by offering an arm. Allow the person to hold your arm and lead by walking slightly in front. Hesitate slightly before taking a step up or down. Let the person know when you arrive at steps (or at an elevator) and indicate whether they are going up or down.

  • When you offer a seat, place the individual's hand on the chair back or arm and then move away.

  • If you need to leave the area, let the person know.

  • Offer written information in large print, audio type, and Braille. If the information is not available in an alternative format, offer to read the material to the person.

  • Have a signature guide available to assist the person with signing any necessary paperwork. A template of a signature guide can be made by cutting out a window on an index card. If you do not have a template, align a ruler or a straight edge like the top of a credit card underneath the line to be signed.

  • Remember that a dog in harness is a working animal. Do not do anything that would distract the dog from the job by, for example, petting or calling the animal.

  • If you give the person directions to the interview, be sure to use distance descriptions rather than street names. For instance, go straight two blocks, then turn right, and the building is on your left.

Auditory/Hearing - Some people may not be able to hear, and others may be able to hear a little. Many individuals will use hearing aids, read lips or use sign language.
  • If the individual does not tell you, then ask either verbally or in writing how you should communicate.

  • Gain the person's attention before you begin to talk by gently waving your hand or lightly touching the individual on the shoulder.

  • Always use a normal volume of voice; do not shout.

  • If the person asks you to speak to them, but repeatedly has trouble understanding what you are trying to communicate, try writing the message down.

  • If the person is going to read your lips, speak slowly and clearly. Use your hands and body movements if it helps get the point across. Do not look down and continue to speak; remember the person needs to be able to see your lips to communicate.

  • If accompanied by an interpreter, look at and speak to the person with the disability. Speak at a normal pace; the interpreter will let you know if you need to slow down.


A number of disabilities may make it difficult for the person to stand for prolonged periods of time or move around. People may use assistive aides like canes, walkers, scooters or wheelchairs.

  • Make sure the route to your office is accessible.

  • Offer to open heavy doors.

  • Have a clipboard available in case the person cannot get to a writing surface, i.e., table, desk.

  • Consider the wheelchair as an extension of the individual's personal space. Never lean on the chair.

  • Use everyday phrases around the person. It is okay to say, "I will be running along,? or "Let's walk over the cafeteria together,? to someone who uses a wheelchair.

  • Put yourself at eye level with the person; this may mean coming from around your desk and sitting down, so the person does not have to constantly look up toward you.

Verbal Expression - Some people may have difficulty expressing themselves. This may be related to physical production of speech that may result in not being able to be understood quickly or easily. A cognitive impairment may also lead to difficulty with word finding, speaking about certain topics or an inability to speak at all. Keep in mind that the ability to speak is not necessarily correlated to a person's level of intelligence.
  • Concentrate on what the person is trying to say.

  • When the person pauses in speech indicate what you do understand; if you do not comprehend something, let the person know. For example ? Your name is Mary, but I did not understand the rest of what you said.?

  • Be patient. The person may have to repeat what is said a number of times before you understand what is being conveyed. Try writing the message down if, after several attempts, the person cannot be understood.

  • Avoid completing the person's thoughts or sentences.

  • Try to meet in a quiet and distraction-free area.


Some individuals may have difficulties with learning because of problems associated with memory, attention and concentration and other cognitive skills. Some people are born with such challenges as mental retardation, while others may experience problems later in life as a result of an injury, such as traumatic brain injury, or due to an illness like bipolar disorder.

  • Repeat information or questions more than once if the person does not seem to comprehend what is said.

  • Rephrase information or questions in a different way, if needed.

  • Ask the person to paraphrase what is understood to help clarify what additional information is needed.

  • If the person has trouble paying attention, eliminate distractions and move so you are closer to and/or within their line of vision and hearing.

  • If possible, give the person adequate time after the meeting to make decisions.

Points to Remember When Interviewing Persons with Disabilities
  • Make sure your company's employment offices and interviewing locations are accessible. If physical accessibility is not possible, establish an alternative location that can be used when needed.

  • The interviewer should make every attempt to ensure that the interview process is flexible and comfortable for both parties. This will help the applicant present him or herself favorably.

  • Make sure interviewers thoroughly understand the essential functions of the job so that they can ask interview questions that are related to the job functions and not the disability.

  • Ask about an applicant's ability to perform the job, but do not ask about the disability specifically. You can, however, ask the applicant how they would perform the task if it is an essential function. For example, an interviewer can ask an applicant with a visual impairment how they would perform the essential task of proofreading for an administrative assistant position.

  • Interviewers cannot ask an applicant about previous illnesses, hospitalizations, therapies or work attendance history.

  • Remember that employers covered under the ADA are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities. Qualified applicants are those who possess the educational background, knowledge, and skills to perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.

  • If the disability is known, be prepared to offer accommodation services that will allow the individual to best present their skills and abilities. For example, an interviewer may have to assist an applicant with completing a job application if the applicant has fine motor or visual disabilities. Interpreters for the deaf may be required to assist in interviewing as may readers for the blind.

  • Some applicants may be accompanied by support staff. The interviewer should always address questions to the applicant and not those who accompany him or her.

  • Initial suggestions for job accommodations should come from the applicant.


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