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Decoding Disability Discrimination

New research uncovers biases against disabled applicants in the hiring process, while experts say HR needs to play a frontline role in helping recruiters and managers overcome any stigma associated with disabilities.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015
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As the Americans with Disabilities Act reaches 25 years of being a federal law, a new study calls into question how well employers are actually doing when it comes to giving disabled job candidates a fair shake.

A group of researchers from Rutgers and Syracuse Universities sent résumés and cover letters from well-qualified fictional applicants in response to more than 6,000 advertised accounting positions. One-third disclosed that the applicant had a spinal cord injury; another third disclosed the presence of Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism; while the final third did not mention a disability at all. Those specific disabilities were chosen because they would not impact a person's ability to effectively perform the duties of an accountant, thus ruling out any productivity-based explanations for differences in employer responses.

The fictional applicants with disabilities received 26-percent fewer expressions of employer interest than those without disabilities, with little difference between the two types of disability, according to the resulting paper, The Disability Employment Puzzle: A Field Experiment on Employer Hiring Behavior, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass.

The researchers expected to find some evidence of discrimination, but didn't anticipate "the magnitude of the effect," says Mason Ameri, a Ph.D. candidate with the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., and one of the authors of the paper. Half of the resumes portrayed a novice accountant, and half portrayed an experienced one. Ameri was particularly alarmed to discover the more-experienced disabled applicants were 34-percent less likely to receive a call-back from potential employers than their non-disabled counterparts.

"We created trail blazers with outstanding, robust profiles," says Ameri. "That raises the question of how much experience is enough to supersede disability -- and I would argue there may never be enough." the findings are certainly concerning, the study itself has some "real shortcomings," says Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader of the Americas talent team at Ernst & Young in Washington. She cites "several limitations":  it focused solely on the accounting profession, included just two disabilities, and the greatest evidence of discrimination was identified in private companies with fewer than 15 employees. Such employers are not covered by the ADA, although comparable state statutes apply to approximately half of them. Golden also questions whether applicants would openly disclose a disability in a cover letter.

"It's a very weird scenario," she says.

While she has issues with the manner in which the study was conducted, Golden says disabled applicants do face a steeper climb than the general population. However, she argues it's not a matter of bias as much as it is a lack of exposure to successful employees with disabilities.

"If you haven't seen a blind person working in public accounting, it would be hard to imagine how somebody who is blind could work on tax processes and fill out forms," says Golden. "However, if you've seen blind professionals using assistive technologies and readers, particularly if you've seen people succeeding and rising through the ranks, it's much easier to imagine."

EY openly highlights disabled workers as role models, telling their stories as "Journeys that Inspire" features on its intranet. The firm also seeks out successful employees with disabilities for "Success Panels," where they discuss various topics via webcasts and at meetings and events.

"Just like we look for diversity in gender and age and ethnicity," says Golden, "we look for diverse abilities because we want individuals with disabilities to be visible to our people as successful professionals."

During last year's Disabilities in America Month, EY featured four disabled employees in a webcast discussing their career choices and career paths. According to Golden, such strategies are an effective way of demonstrating that disabled people can be successful at every level of the organization.

The situation is expected to get better as millennials play a larger role in making hiring decisions, says Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a Silver Spring, Md.-based nonprofit organization that provides information, education and assistance to individual workers and their advocates and promotes public policies that advance employee rights. Theirs was the first generation to experience full integration of disabled classmates, giving them a different view than their predecessors, she says.

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"They went to school with disabled students and have seen examples of people with various disabilities who are perfectly capable to work in jobs," says Brantner. "There's a comfort level that hasn't existed in prior generations."

In the meantime, it's not enough to merely rely on the ADA to eliminate disability-based hiring biases. HR needs to play a frontline role in helping recruiters and managers overcome any stigma they may have attached to people with disabilities.

"When it comes to training people who are involved in hiring decisions, clearly just letting them know there's a law and they are not supposed to discriminate is not enough," says study co-author Meera Adya, director of research at the Burton Blatt Institute, and affiliated faculty in psychology at Syracuse University. "They need to be trained on how to approach an applicant who has a disability and how not to have implicit biases influence their decisions."

Golden advocates educating hiring managers and recruiters about the accommodations process and making specialists available to troubleshoot any issues that may arise. According to Brantner, such initiatives enable HR to go beyond simply complying with the law, helping to ensure that competent individuals are not overlooked simply because they have a disability.

"You start with the adherence to the law, but until you get to where people can actually work side-by-side with someone who has a disability, it's going to be hard to overcome some of those deeply held biases that are really unfounded in reality," says Brantner. "HR needs to send the message that this is a company that welcomes workers with disabilities and then facilitate that process every step of the way."

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