Biases, Challenges Unearthed in DOL Online Chat on Disability Hiring

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Online applications, screening assessments, difficult commutes and even employer bias are among the challenges that prevent disabled people from landing or keeping jobs, said participants in a recent online dialogue hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Sixty people weighed in during the Sept. 9-10, 2013, dialogue, which the department hosted to help the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) shape future policies on assisting the disabled in finding work.

“Clearly, employers are a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to increasing the employment rate of people with disabilities,” said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. “We need to fully understand their needs and how we can assist them, so they, in turn, can foster workplaces open to the talents of all qualified individuals.”

ODEP plans to publish a report about the online conversation. Participants were asked to respond to the question, “What services should an employer-support center provide to facilitate the hiring, retention and advancement of people with disabilities?”

Participants were identified by their chosen online names.

What’s in It for Business?

“I hear from people that they would prefer to hire someone able-bodied, so as to get the most bang for their buck,” wrote one participant, who suggested that the government offer companies tax breaks for hiring the disabled, even if they “seem like charity. The easiest way to get to employers is generally through the bottom line.”

That sentiment was echoed by a second participant, who observed that the “only way [to convince more companies to hire disabled people] … is by creating business incentives.”

“Disabilities must be turned into obvious business assets,” the participant wrote, suggesting that companies could be “rated” on how “disability friendly” their workplaces are—ratings they could use in advertising to attract “customers in the disability community.”

Organizations that hire many disabled people should make “their business case” for doing so to encourage others to follow suit, a third participant suggested. “What skills, talents, etc., have their employees brought to the workplace? Ask them to describe how their workplace and work experience has been enriched.”

Frustrating Applications and Federal Programs

Some participants expressed frustration with application processes that tend to put those with disabilities at a disadvantage.

For instance, one person noted that many employers now use online applications with assessments that screen candidates against a preferred profile. “Unfortunately, assessments were designed for the ‘neuro-typical’ individual. In many cases, individuals with cognitive disabilities will be automatically screened out because of their inability to successfully pass the assessments.”

Someone else, agreeing that application assessments “are often difficult for someone with a mental disability,” added that “This often leads to elimination before anyone has put their eyes on” the application. These tests often say that the applicant is not to receive any assistance or use any reference material. My question is, How much, if any, support is fair when a mentally disabled person has to face one of these tests?”

A third participant pointed out that people with visual disabilities can “have a difficult time navigating” online job applications.

Others said that while the federal government has dozens of employment programs that address hiring people with disabilities, these “form a patchwork … without a unified strategy or set of national goals.” In response, someone suggested that an online national directory of disability organizations, searchable by region and with comments and ratings from users, be created to help employers that “have no knowledge” of such resources.

Resentment in the Office

Still others observed that nondisabled employees can become resentful of the accommodations afforded the disabled.

“Very often, telecommuting is … a reasonable accommodation,” one poster wrote. “Sometimes, nondisabled employees feel such an accommodation gives the disabled employees a greater right than the nondisabled.”

Replying to that comment, another participant said HR directors need “a curriculum … to change employer/employee attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and raise awareness of how assistive technology can be used to ensure equal access to good jobs and job promotions.”

Disabled employees who do commute run up against another challenge: “the cost of the transportation or the lack of transportation in rural areas,” one participant wrote. Moreover, some “individuals with disabilities … can work but cannot drive and have to rely on public transportation. It would be good if an employer offered some kind of transportation program similar to a flexible spending account so that money can be put away a little bit at a time to help.”

Legal Concerns and Education

Another angle that surfaced in the discussion was the threat of lawsuits. A participant disclosed that some businesses are wary of considering job applicants with disabilities because they fear future liability. The commenter described someone who “put down on their application that they had a disability,” but the employer “was concerned that this would be a hook for a lawsuit if the person wasn’t hired.”

In August 2013 the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs issued a final rule requiring federal contractors to provide affirmative action to those with disabilities and not discriminate against them. Some skeptics have said that because federal contractors may now learn about applicants’ disabilities, those who aren’t hired may claim it was due to their identifying themselves as disabled.

“With the new regulations and requirements to invite individuals to self-identify … it would be helpful if there were some kind of campaign that encouraged disclosure,” wrote one participant, who added that those with disabilities are already hesitant to disclose them, especially if the disability is not evident. “It could explain … how it could help to improve employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities.”

Several participants said education is the antidote to employers’ fears but pointed out that most colleges don’t teach business students much about hiring people with disabilities.

One person noted that students pursuing business degrees only briefly study the Americans with Disabilities Act, and “the idea of hiring people with disabilities is rarely addressed” in class. “Content about people with a wide range of disabilities could easily be infused into college and university courses.”

Wrote another: “Most college recruiters don’t have knowledge of” some major disability resources.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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