Internship Leads to Job, Lesson in Self-Advocacy

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek January 12, 2022
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internship interview

A summer internship at American Express through national nonprofit Strive for College not only led to an offer for a full-time job at the company's New York City office when college student Mausam Mehta graduates in May, it also taught her the importance of presenting her authentic self to her employer and advocating on her own behalf.

The University of Virginia senior will serve as an analyst working on project research, product development and analyzing the strength of competitors' products.

Mausam Mehta

Mehta, who is legally blind, had wrestled with whether to disclose her disability to recruiters when applying for internships.

"Do I want to do that?" she recalled asking herself. If so, she'd have to overcome her fear that disclosure could introduce bias into the interview process.

She decided to reference her disability on her internship application and alluded to it on her resume. This led to a discussion during the interview with AmEx about the "huge role" technology plays in her life and conversations about universal design, said Mehta, who is one of AmEx's first legally blind interns.

"The idea of universal design is anybody can use a product," Mehta noted. "If a product has features that make it easier for a specific group to use, those features can benefit everybody equally," much like how ramps cut into sidewalks benefit individuals using baby strollers as well as crutches and wheelchairs.

The experience taught her the importance of being "honest about my experiences and how they've shaped me into a very marketable professional," she said. "A fear many [students with disabilities] have is that we will be seen as lacking because people don't take the time to consider we are equally capable."

However, as an intern working in the company's digital labs, "I was able to leverage my disability" in discussions about product design, Mehta said.

"I bring a different perspective to the table, [and] people are willing to listen."

Her question to others: "Are you leveraging your voice in a way that is useful, appropriate and empowers those coming after you?"

How to Advocate for Yourself

One of Mehta's concerns was the availability of the assistive technology she needed to perform her tasks. A screen reader had not been installed in the laptop she was issued at the beginning of the 10-week internship.

"The first couple of days I was using a low-quality platform," she recalled, noting that correcting the problem was a huge lesson in self-advocacy. "The biggest thing I learned overall in the internship is I needed to ask for what I wanted and what I needed" to do the job, she added. "I had to do a lot of explaining: 'This is something I absolutely need. I will not be able to do the work [without a screen reader].'

"It's OK to add urgency" to the request and explain why you need something, she said.

Requesting accommodations from your employer can be done without disclosing your disability, according to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN).

However, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "employers are only required to provide accommodations for employees who are experiencing workplace problems because of a disability," JAN notes. "Therefore, unless you let your employer know that you have a disability, the employer is not obligated to consider accommodations under the ADA."

For people uncomfortable disclosing their medical condition or diagnosis to their direct supervisors, go to HR, JAN advises:

"Someone there would be chosen to verify that you do have a disability under the ADA. This confidential information is then stored in a separate locked file that other employees won't have access to. HR then moves forward with the accommodation process where your supervisor may be involved in providing the accommodations."

Be assertive, Mehta emphasized.

"Talk to HR," she said. "Talk to recruiting, talk to campus management and ask for that accommodation."

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