Why Is the Unemployment Rate for People With Disabilities So High?

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in America was 10.5% in 2016. That’s more than twice the unemployment rate for people without disabilities. People on the autism spectrum specifically have even higher unemployment rates of between 70% and 90% depending on the state.

Why Is the Unemployment Rate for People With Disabilities So High?

We have legislation against employment discrimination and watchdogs empowered to investigate and enforce. We have toolkits and courses designed to help managers and HR pros eliminate discrimination from the hiring process. So why is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities still so high?

Hiring Discrimination Is Pervasive

PBS’ News Hour recently investigated the situation, looking at new employment discrimination research and interviewing job seekers with disabilities. Economist Doug Kruse, interviewed in the segment, recently headed a study on employment discrimination, sending out 6000 resumes and looking at the response rate for resumes and cover letters that state the job seeker has a disability and those that didn’t. Candidates with disabilities received 26% fewer callbacks.

Kruse says that this reluctance to even interview candidates with disabilities is due to “fear of the unknown.” Hiring managers and HR pros worry that candidates with disabilities might burden the company in some way, or just make them and their colleagues uncomfortable. “There’s a lot of discomfort with people with disabilities. I think Oh, geez, someone with a spinal cord injury, I’m not sure they’re going to fit in here.”

In short, the lower response rate observed for candidates with disabilities is due to ignorance and prejudice. These are not challenges candidates can simply overcome with a great resume or interview, they’re bone deep and systematic biases that aren’t quickly eliminated by good data or better training. They’re driven by the sense that employing people with disabilities is somehow more difficult and costly than employing people without disabilities, and even more fundamentally, that people with disabilities are a burden.

Confronting Bias

The simple truth is that disability accommodations aren’t all that costly and that employing people with disabilities is good for your company and your bottom line. Diversifying your workforce improves your company culture, discouraging bigots and bullies and allowing new voices with new ideas to be heard. Diverse teams are more innovative, because they bring different experiences, skills, and ways of thinking to the table. Hell, there are even tax benefits that make hiring people with disabilities a clear win, and fines that make discriminating against them a clear loss. The benefits, both to culture and finances, outweigh the simple material costs of adding ramps or changing schedules.

But I don’t think we should only think about diversity and inclusion in terms of profit and loss. That can be profoundly dehumanizing for candidates, employees, and even your managers. It’s also not tremendously effective, since we make decisions as much based on emotion as we do on logic. Even when we think we’re making unbiased, rational decisions, we’re not – our brains just don’t work that way. As important as it is to make the business case for every business decision, our candidates, employees and managers – our human resources – are more worth more than can be summed up in a cost/benefit analysis, and our lingering prejudices are not easily defeated by reports.

Leaders at the accounting firm EY, who are trying to significantly expand the number of people on the autistic spectrum, were interviewed by PBS. While management could give rational justifications for the program, such as the special talents neurodiverse individuals brought to the team and the boost they give to the company’s bottom line, it was also obvious that they respected and believed in their staff. They have faith in their recruitment strategy, and they appreciate the input from each and every worker. They invested the time in diversity training to become better managers of persons with disabilities, not just to mark that box. They were on board, comprehending the issue, making efforts to eradicate bias from their workplace culture, and diversifying their staff.

The real secret to improving the employment rate for people with disabilities is that people in power need to care about the problem, confront their own biases, and then act. Have you made a plan to diversify your workforce? If not, ask yourself why that is.

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Megan Purdy

Former recruiter, HR pro and Workology editor. Comics, cheese and political economy.


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