The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities in America was 10.5% in 2016, more than twice the unemployment rate for people without disabilities. People on the autism spectrum specifically have even higher unemployment rates between 70% and 90% depending on the state.
We have a law against discrimination in employment and watchdogs empowered to investigate and enforce. We have toolkits and courses designed to help managers and human resources professionals eliminate discrimination related to the hiring process. So why is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities still so high?
Discrimination in hiring is ubiquitous
PBS News Hour recently investigated the situation by examining new research on discrimination in employment and interviewing disabled jobseekers. Economist Doug Kruse, interviewed in the segment, recently led a study on Discrimination in Employment, sending 6000 resumes and reviewing the response rate for resumes and cover letters. which indicate that the job seeker has a disability. Disabled candidates received 26% fewer reminders.
Kruse says that this reluctance to interview even disabled candidates is due to the "fear of the unknown". Hiring managers and HR professionals fear that disabled candidates will harm the company or make them uncomfortable. . "There is a lot of discomfort with people with disabilities, I believe that someone who has a spinal cord injury, I am not sure that they will integrate here."
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In short, the lower response rate observed among disabled candidates is attributable to ignorance and prejudice. These are not challenges that candidates can simply overcome with an excellent resume or interview; they are deep and systematic biases that are not quickly eliminated by good data or training. They are motivated by the feeling that hiring people with disabilities is harder and more expensive than hiring people without disabilities, and even more fundamentally, that people with disabilities are a burden.
The simple truth is that accommodations for people with disabilities are not that expensive and that hiring people with disabilities is good for your business and your profitability . Diversifying your workforce enhances your company's culture, discourages bigots and bullies, and allows new voices 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 an obvious victory, and fines that discriminate against them in obvious loss. The benefits, both for culture and for finance, outweigh the simple material costs of adding ramps or changing schedules .
But I do not think we should just think about diversity and inclusion in terms of profits and losses. This can be deeply dehumanizing for candidates, employees and even your managers. Nor is it very effective, since we make decisions as much based on emotion as on logic . Even when we think we make unbiased and rational decisions, we do not do it – our brains do not work that way. As important as the business case is for each business decision, our candidates, employees and managers – our people – are worth more than can be summed up in a cost-benefit analysis, and our lingering prejudices are not easily defeated by reports.
PBS interviewed leaders of the accounting firm EY, who are working to dramatically increase the number of people on the autism spectrum. While leaders could cite logical reasons for the program – the unique skills that neurodiverses brought to the team and the boost that they brought to the business results – their respect for their employees and their belief in the program were also clear. They believe in their hiring plan and they appreciate the contributions of all their employees. They took the time to do diversity training, not so that they could check this box, so that they could be better managers of people with disabilities. They bought, understood the problem, striving to root out prejudices in their corporate culture and diversify their workforce.
The real secret of improving the employment rate of people with disabilities is that people in power should be concerned about the problem, confronting their own biases, and then acting. Have you developed a plan to diversify your workforce? If no, ask yourself why this is.