Discrimination Against Job Applicants with Disabilities Exposed

A new study concluded that employers are still discriminating against job applicants who have a disclosed disability.


The Study

For the study, which was conducted by Rutgers and Syracuse, researchers sent cover letters and rsums to various accounting companies for just over 6,000 jobs in the accounting field. The only difference in the applications was that some cover letters disclosed that the applicant had a disability. In the experiment, “one-third of cover letters disclosing that the applicant has a spinal cord injury, one-third disclosing the presence of Asperger’s Syndrome, and one-third not mentioning disability.” Half of the applications described a candidate with several years of experience, and the other half portrayed inexperienced recent graduates.

“We created people who were truly experts in that profession,” Mason Ameri said. Ameri is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations.

According to the study’s introduction, “These specific disabilities were chosen because they would not be expected to limit productivity in accounting, helping rule out productivity-based explanations for any differences in employer responses.”

Ultimately, employers were 26 percent less likely to pursue candidates with a disclosed disability (the difference between which disability was not significant) than candidates who did not disclose a disability, despite all other qualifications being the same. Interestingly, when looking at results separately based on experience level, employers were 34 percent less likely to respond to experienced candidates with a disclosed disability but just 15 percent less likely to answer entry-level disabled candidates.

Further, the study concluded significantly more bias from companies with fewer than 15 employees, showing the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on hiring employees with disabilities. Companies of such a small size are not covered under federal law. The study did not determine the effectiveness of state laws.

“The overall pattern of findings is consistent with the idea that disability discrimination continues to impede employment prospects of people with disabilities, and more attention needs to be paid to employer behavior and the demand side of the labor market for people with disabilities,” the introduction concludes.

Analysis of Results

While this study tested solely accounting companies, it confirmed a national trend: only 21.5 percent of non-institutionalized people aged 21-64 with a disability were employed full-time in 2013, compared to 56.8 percent of people without a disability.

Lisa Schur, a political scientist with Rutgers who worked on the study, said the team was not “astounded” by the fact that companies were less interested in candidates with a disclosed disability. “But I don’t think we were expecting [the difference] to be as large,” she explained.

What surprised Ameri was the gap based on experience level. “We thought the employer would want to at least speak to [the experienced candidate], shoot an email, send a phone call, see if I could put a face to a name,” he said. The researchers suggested that the gap could be because higher-level employees have higher salaries and tend to interact with others more often. According to Dr. Schur, “employers see these people as riskier” whether their concerns are plausible or not.

How Other Companies are Different

Federal contractors are now, by law, required to have people with disabilities make up at least 7 percent of their staff. Recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities is not impossible, however, as demonstrated by many companies on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity:

(via DiversityInc Best Practices National Disability Employment Awareness Month Meeting in a Box)

EY, the No. 1 company on DiversityInc’s Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities (and No. 4 on the Top 50), has been very successful in hiring employees with disabilities. From October 2014 to June 2015, the company’s hiring of people with disabilities in the U.S. went up by more than half. According to Steve Howe, EY’s managing partner, the result is based on a very conscious effort: “Part of my job is to set the right tone from the top,” he said in an interview with DiversityInc. “We are doing all of those things in terms of communication, awareness, changes to the workplace and educating our leaders to be inclusive.”

According to Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability, successfully hiring employees with disabilities begins with company awareness: “You have to assess your practices to see how you’re doing,” she explained. “And you have to invite people to self identify voluntarily.”

Employers who are concerned with their own record on hiring employees with disabilities can use the NOD Disability Employment Tracker, a self-assessment that asks confidential questions and provides a report free of charge, to begin their process. “You get back a report on how you’re doing in the major areas of your disabilities inclusion,” Glazer said. “This is a very good place to start.”

Other solutions to successfully hire employees with disabilities include hiring interns with disabilities, not only to acclimate the intern to employee culture but also so current employees can become comfortable working with a person with disabilities; using employee resource groups; and having recruiters seek out potential employees with disabilities.

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