by Katie Sola
Employers really do discriminate against job applicants with disabilities, even when the disabilities might make them better workers, a new study shows. The results may help explain why unemployment rates remain high among people with disabilities.
“Unfortunately, the results of the study do not surprise us,” says Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. Pure prejudice, litigation concerns and perceived accommodation costs drive employers to reject applicants with disabilities, he explained.
Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to see how disabilities affect the hiring process. They submitted 6,016 fake applications to junior and senior positions at accounting firms. One third of the fake applicants mentioned having Asperger’s Syndrome, and one third mentioned a spinal cord injury in their cover letters, with a note explaining they could still do their job. The final third of the fake applications did not disclose any disability.
The researchers explain in the paper that people with Asperger’s Syndrome may be particularly suited to the largely technical and solitary work of accounting.
Employers were unconvinced. As shown in the graph above, applicants without disabilities were 26% more likely to get an expression of interest from an employer than their disabled peers. Surprisingly, the fake applicants who had a CPA and six years’ experience were less likely to hear back from employers than novice accountants.
People with disabilities face enduring challenges in the workplace. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 12.5 percent in 2014, twice as high as the 5.9 percent of people without disabilities, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics. “Unemployed” people are defined as people who don’t have jobs but are available and searching for work.
Decker spelled out a few reasons why employers might shy away from hiring applicants with disabilities. Companies are wary of having to provide expensive accommodations, although Decker says accommodating disabled employees is easier and cheaper than most companies realize.
He pointed out that people with spinal cord injuries use wheelchairs, so they need higher desks, a path of travel and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. Most modern office buildings are wheelchair accessible, and the other modifications wouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars, he said. Employees with Asperger’s might require a flexible schedule, but probably no other accommodations, he added.
Decker says companies may believe employees with disabilities are more likely to sue their companies,which he calls a “myth.”
So why don’t employers want to hire people with disabilities? Decker points to prejudice.
“There’s still some stigma issues with employers,” Decker said. “What’s it going to be like to have a disabled person in my office? Will I want to look at them every day?”