When employers hire and nurture employees with disabilities, everyone benefits, research finds
At its best, work is a source of productivity, self-esteem and healthy socializing, not to mention income. But working-age people with disabilities are less than half as likely to partake of that essential experience as their peers without disabilities—about 34 percent compared with 74 percent, according to U.S. Census and other federal employment statistics.
They also receive less pay and fewer training and promotional opportunities than those without such impairments, and they're far more likely to lose their jobs once they've secured them. A study out this year in the International Journal of Human Resource Management, for instance, found that in the period of 2007 to 2013, men and women in the United States with disabilities were, respectively, 75 percent and 89 percent more likely to be laid off or fired than employees without disabilities, according to researchers Sophie Mitra, PhD, of Fordham University and Douglas Kruse, PhD, of Rutgers University.
A big reason for these disparities is employer perceptions of people with disabilities, says workplace disability researcher Susanne Bruyère, PhD, who directs the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.
"There is still a lot of stigma and stereotyping suggesting that people with disabilities can't perform at an equal level at jobs of all types, even though the impairment they have may have nothing to do with their qualifications for the job or their ability to execute on required tasks," she says.
While there are varying definitions of disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act describes disability as "any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." About one in five Americans has one or more such cognitive, motor, sensory or mental health impairments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the chances of developing a disability increase significantly as we get older.
Researchers studying workplace disability issues make a point of looking at disabilities both in general and specific ways, because both perspectives yield valuable information. Data comparing individual disabilities, for instance, reveal that people with cognitive impairments earn far less for equivalent jobs than employees with hearing impairments, says Kruse. Conversely, a 2015 field study Kruse conducted with colleagues found that when employers read ersatz cover letters from people with one of two types of disabilities—spinal-cord injuries or Asperger's syndrome—they were 26 percent less likely to express interest in interviewing candidates with either disability than those with no reported disabilities. The findings strongly suggest "that employers are biased against disability per se, not just against the type of disability," Kruse says.
Fortunately, some companies—including large employers such as Marriott, Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, as well as federal entities such as the Department of Veterans Affairs—are bucking this trend. Other examples include the drug store chain Walgreens, whose disability-friendly employment climate has won it numerous accolades, and IBM, which hires people with disabilities specifically to test and develop technology software that can serve people with disabilities and users in general.
"People with disabilities can bring unique perspectives to the workplace and creative ways of solving problems that can be extremely valuable to a company," Kruse says.
To learn more about what's working in these settings, psychologists and other researchers are taking a closer look at cases, applying what they find.
One way that researchers and disabilities advocates are examining what can help increase workplace inclusion of workers with disabilities is by compiling best practices from observation and research at exemplary job sites. Bruyère and her Cornell team, for instance, have created a list of 90 best practices across several aspects of the employment process, including recruitment and hiring, retention and career advancement (see http://benchmarkability.com). Good practices include having a central fund to pay for accommodations rather than leaving it to individual departments to field, and ensuring that interview locations, recruitment events, and recruiting and interviewing materials are accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, the team has developed an online self-assessment tool that helps companies develop workplace-inclusion initiatives, as well as a series of online training packages that support such practices (see bottom of page for resources).
Now researchers are looking in more detail at which of these practices may lead to robust inclusion rates. In a survey of 675 human resource professionals reported in a 2014 article in Rehabilitation Research, Policy and Education, William A. Erickson of Cornell, along with Bruyère and colleagues, found that companies with internship programs for people with disabilities were six times more likely to hire a person with a disability in the previous year than those without such programs. The researchers also found that companies were much more likely to hire workers with disabilities when their senior managers were committed to the idea, when the companies actively recruited people with disabilities, and when the performance criteria for middle managers included disability and inclusion goals.
Researchers are also studying the idea of "supported employment," a strategy that deploys service providers who spend time at the workplace assisting employees with developmental and psychiatric disabilities and working with employers to ensure that these employees can do the work, have the accommodations they need and are able to navigate the social environment, which may also involve training nondisabled employees. Though costly, the approach is highly effective. A 2011 meta-analysis in the Journal of Dual Diagnoses by Kim T. Mueser, PhD, of Dartmouth College, and colleagues, for instance, found that 60 percent of workers with disabilities who participated in such programs were employed 18 months later, compared with 24 percent who participated in traditional vocational rehab programs.
Now, Department of Veterans Affairs clinical psychologist Lisa Ottomanelli, PhD, of the VA's Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, is applying the same principles to veterans with spinal cord injuries—the first time the supported-employment model has been applied to people with physical disabilities. In a randomized controlled trial of 201 veterans reported in a 2012 article in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a 2014 two-year follow-up in the same journal, she and colleagues found that those who received the supportive services—which are embedded within the integrated health services at the VA—were about three times more likely to be employed at two years than those who received employment-related services outside the VA. What's more, the program ensured that veterans weren't just employed at any low-paying job that came along, but in positions that melded their interests with those of community employers. One veteran got a job as a graphic designer for a video gaming company, another as a Skype-based English-language instructor for Japanese students, and a third as a customer service agent at a major football stadium, to name some examples.
Researchers are also examining how workplace climate may affect the attitudes, experiences and productivity of people with disabilities. Not surprisingly, they're finding that people with disabilities fare much better in flexible, individualized environments than in settings that treat accommodations solely as legal mandates. Such accommodations don't mean that a company can't succeed financially: At two Walgreens distribution centers where 38 percent of employees have disabilities, the company's cultivated atmosphere of individual attention, respect and teamwork has led to high rates of productivity and innovation, finds a case study of 31 of the company's managers by Anderson University researcher Jeffrey R. Moore, PhD, and colleagues.
Nondisabled employees appreciate these kinds of job climates as well. In a 2014 article in Human Resource Management, for instance, Rutgers University disability employment researcher Lisa Schur, PhD, and colleagues found that unlike those in more rigid employment settings, nondisabled employees in supportive companies were generally pleased when peers with disabilities received accommodations. The researchers also found that people with and without disabilities requested similar types of accommodations to meet personal scheduling needs—for doctor's appointments or family emergencies, for example—and that the costs and benefits of these accommodations were similar for both groups.
Such findings suggest that inclusive disability practices have something for all employees, Schur says. "Things like working from home, flexible schedules to take care of children or older parents—those are things that can benefit all workers, not just those with disabilities."
Resources for employers
A self-assessment tool to help companies assess and improve on their disability inclusiveness.
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Charge Data Online Tool
State-by-state access to employment discrimination charges filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act between 2006–14.
- Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute Publications
- Cornell's Employer Practices Research and Training Center Website
- APA's DisABILITY Resources Toolbox
Includes information for internship directors who employ students and trainees with disabilities.
By Tori DeAngelis
- This article was originally published in the December 2016 Monitor on Psychology