Disability Discrimination Study Yields Sad but Unsurprising Results

The New York Times reported today about a study recently undertaken by Rutgers and Syracuse universities.  Researchers sent resumes and cover letters on behalf of fictitious applicants for thousands of accounting jobs.  Disappointingly, they found that employers expressed interest in candidates who disclosed a disability about 26 percent less frequently than in candidates who did not.  This could explain the low national employment rate for persons with disabilities.

The researchers created two separate resumes: one for a highly qualified candidate with six years of experience, and one for a novice candidate about one year out of college.  For each resume, they composed three different cover letters: one for a candidate with no disability, one for a candidate who disclosed a spinal cord injury in the letter, and one for a candidate who disclosed having Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that can make social interactions difficult.

Interestingly, employers had less interest in interviewing the experienced candidate that was disabled than the disabled candidate just out of school. Employers were about 34 percent less likely to show interest in an experienced disabled candidate, but only about 15 percent less likely to express interest in a disabled novice candidate.  The researchers speculated that the steeper drop-off in interested for experienced disabled candidates arose because more experienced workers represent a larger investment for employers, who must typically pay such workers higher salaries and assume the employment relationship will last longer.  Also, experienced workers are also more likely to interact with clients on a regular basis so employers may believe that hiring these workers are riskier.

Also surprising to me, the researchers found that the decline in interest in disabled workers was roughly the same whether the disability was a spinal cord injury or Asperger’s.  This points to a general bias against people with disabilities.

I found it encouraging that the study showed that the enactment of the American’s with Disabilities Act (the 1990 federal law banning discrimination against persons with disabilities) appeared to reduce bias.  Businesses covered by the act, those with 15 or more workers, were not as likely to reject the disabled candidates out of hand as smaller businesses. Although this shows progress, our work does not appear to be done. Should you experience discrimination in the workplace on account of a disability or even a perceived disability, please consult a qualified employment attorney.