Disability and HR Strategy: Expanding Your Talent Pool and Diversity Outlook

February 6, 2017

Disability and HR Strategy: Expanding Your Talent Pool and Diversity Outlook

Talent acquisition is always a prime area of focus for companies and HR professionals. With an improving economy and subsequent labor market, finding the right people for the job and retaining them will be an increasing challenge. Identifying expanded sources of labor to fill this gap is imperative, and individuals with disabilities have historically been overlooked as a source of qualified talent which can address this need. Putting a spotlight on the population of individuals with disabilities as a focus area, not only affords a diverse pool of candidates with unique abilities, but also can benefit the overall workplace climate for inclusion, as well as open up new business opportunities in terms of growth in revenue and market share to reach the very large population of consumers represented by individuals with disabilities, their family members and caregivers.

People with disabilities are approximately 15 percent of the world’s population, or one billion people worldwide (World Health Organization, 2011), yet remain significantly unemployed or underemployed compared to their nondisabled peers. In the U.S., people with disabilities are employed at less than half the rate of their nondisabled peers—35 percent compared to 78 percent of people without disabilities (Erickson, von Schrader & Lee, 2017). So, understanding how to reach this population and identify qualified candidates can add a whole new dimension to effective recruiting by significantly expanding the talent pool and adding to your company’s heightened success in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.  

People with disabilities are approximately 15 percent of the world’s population, or one billion people worldwide, yet remain significantly unemployed or underemployed compared to their nondisabled peers

For select employers, having targeted strategic recruitment and hiring goals are now at the forefront because of recent executive and legislative mandates that prohibit disability discrimination in many aspects employment in private industry, the government and third-sector organizations. An example are the requirements of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act which impact federal contractors and sub-contractors of $10,000 or more, and require companies to formulate specific plans to increase recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The regulations establish a nationwide 7 percent utilization goal for qualified individuals with disabilities, which contractors must apply to each of their job groups or to their entire workforce if the contractor has 100 or fewer employees.

Knowing how to effectively reach and attract candidates with disabilities is of increasing interest to many companies and there are a number of proven practices that can heighten the likelihood of successful identification of qualified candidates with disabilities. In a research study where Cornell University partnered with the Society for Human Resource Management, HR professionals were asked whether their organizations had put in place any of 10 policies and practices that facilitate recruitment and hiring of individuals with disabilities (Erickson et al., 2014). More than half reported including disability in their diversity and inclusion statements (59 percent), requiring sub-contractors/suppliers to adhere to disability nondiscrimination requirements (57 percent), and having relationships with community organizations that promote the hiring of people with disabilities (54 percent). Far fewer reported having explicit organizational goals related to the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities (25 percent), participating in internships or similar programs that target people with disabilities (19 percent), and having progress toward recruitment or hiring goals for people with disabilities in the performance appraisals of senior management (18 percent). Approximately two out of five HR respondents reported that their companies actively recruited individuals with disabilities (45 percent) and have senior management that demonstrates a strong commitment to hiring of people with disabilities (38 percent).

It is desirable that a company reports using select HR policies and practices that are known to support workplace disability inclusion, but it’s also important to assess whether such efforts are being actively implemented and also whether they are leading to increased employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. Therefore, we also examined whether execution of these policies and practices led to improved employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. A chart showing the relative importance of each of these practices in terms of positive outcomes is shown below.

Relative Importance of Recruitment and Hiring Practices on Predicting the Hiring of Persons with Disabilities, in Order of Importance


Organizational Practices and Characteristics

Relative Importance

Strong senior management commitment


Internships for PWDs


Reviews accessibility of on-line job application system


PWD in diversity & inclusion plan


Explicit PWD organizational goals


Advanced notice to applicants RE reasonable accommodations in job application process


Evaluates pre-employment screenings to ensure they are unbiased


Relationships with community organizations


Actively recruiting PWD


PWD considered in management performance



We found that the more practices a company reported implementing, the more likely that organization was to have hired an individual with a disability in the past year. In addition, some practices appeared to heighten the probability that this positive outcome occurred. For example, companies that reported having targeted internships were almost six times more likely to have hired a person with a disability in the past year. Companies that had strong senior management commitment for hiring people with disabilities or had explicit organizational goals targeting recruitment of persons with disabilities were approximately five times more likely to have hired a person with a disability in the past year.

Forming partnerships with local employment service providers who focus on sourcing these candidates is another avenue proven very successful. In fact, companies that have relationships with such community organizations were three times more likely to have hired a person with a disability in the past year. Similarly effective are practices such as including persons with disabilities in diversity and inclusion plans and actively recruiting for qualified candidates from this group. Picking a few of these proven successful practices is a very good place to start building your company’s disability inclusion strategy.



Erickson, W., Lee, C., von Schrader, S. (2017). Disability Statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute (YTI). Retrieved from Cornell University Disability Statistics website: www.disabilitystatistics.org/

Erickson, W., von Schrader, S., Bruyère, S., VanLooy, S., & Matteson, D. (2014). Disability-inclusive employer practices and hiring of individuals with disabilities. Journal of Rehabilitation Research, Policy and Education, 28(4), 309–328. Retrieved from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/springer/rrpe/2014/00000028/00000004/art00007.

World Health Organization. (2011). World Report on Disability. Geneva, Switzerland.

The Authors: 

Susanne M. Bruyère, Ph.D., CRC, is currently professor of disability studies and the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, ILR School at Cornell University. Dr. Bruyère is also project director and co-principal Investigator of numerous federally-sponsored research, dissemination, and technical assistance efforts focused on employment and disability policy and effective workplace practices for people with disabilities including: the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employer Practice to Improve Employment Outcomes for Persons with Disabilities; and the Organizational Practices to Increase Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities: The Power of Social Networks. She is a past president of the Division of Rehabilitation Psychology (22) of the American Psychological Association, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, and the National Council on Rehabilitation Education. She can be reached at smb23@cornell.edu.