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Overcoming Barriers to Employment for Individuals With Disabilities


by Clif Boutelle, for SIOP

SIOP Members Say Attitudes Toward Employees with Disabilities (EWD) Are Changing for the Better and I-O Psychologists Are Increasingly Devoting Their Research Toward EWDs’ Concerns

By Clif Boutelle, for SIOP

Much is made, and rightly so, about diversity in our society, in particular as it relates to African Americans, Hispanics, and women. Less attention, though, is given to one of the largest minority groups in the country—individuals with disabilities.

According to recent census data, there are more than 56 million Americans with disabilities, nearly 20% of the population. In Canada there are 3.8 million people with disabilities. 

When it comes to employment, employees with disabilities rarely experience the same access to work opportunities as their able-bodied and comparably educated counterparts, said Silvia Bonaccio, an associate professor of management at the University of Ottawa, who along with McMaster University’s Catherine Connelly, and Kathleen Martin Ginis and Ian Gellatly of the University of Alberta, presented a paper on employment barriers for individuals with physical disabilities at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s annual conference earlier this year.

Supporting her contention is a 2014 report from the Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy that estimates that the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is nearly 13%, more than double the rate for able-bodied individuals. Also, those with disabilities who are employed earn considerably less ($1,961 per month vs. $2,724) than those with no disabilities according to the U. S. Census Bureau.

There are some positive signs, though.

Federal and state initiatives, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, which turns 25 this year, and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act have resulted in greater participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities into the workforce. Just last year, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act was revised to suggest federal contractors and agencies ensure that people with disabilities account for at least 7% of workers within each job group in their workforce.

Although most organizations have diversity initiatives, they are primarily focused on gender and ethnicity issues, said Peter Rutigliano, vice president and senior consultant at Sirota Consulting.

“Companies need to pay more attention to employees with disabilities (EWD), and the Section 503 recommendations are having that effect,” he explained. “Companies are increasingly taking notice of disparities with EWD’s and it is resulting in more conversation.”

Yet that conversation often poses a dilemma for EWDs and employers alike, said Lisa Nishii, an associate professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, who with Kristie McAlpine, a doctoral candidate at Cornell, presented a study on disclosing disabilities at the most recent SIOP Conference.

“Disclosing a disability is a personal decision with far-reaching consequences for both employees and their employers,” Nishii said, adding that “employers are largely at the mercy of the willingness of EWDs to disclose” their disabilities.

Her research shows that EWDs are more likely to disclose their disability when they work in inclusive climates and, furthermore, that they are less likely to report experiencing disability-related mistreatment from their coworkers in inclusive climates.

“Employers must make a compelling case for employees to disclose a disability and demonstrate the benefits of disclosure to both the employee and the organization,” she said. “There needs to be a high level of trust in management so that EWDs feel confident that disclosing a disability will not result in negative consequences.”

Nishii said research she and colleagues conducted showed that nearly three-fourths of managers are not fully aware of their company’s disability practices.

“Awareness among line managers of both policies and employees’ needs is critical for promoting inclusion,” she said.

However, thanks to the Section 503 revisions, federal agencies and contractors are encouraged to urge employees to disclose their disabilities. Other organizations, as well, are determining how they can persuade employees to inform them of their disability.

Defining a disability is complex, said Arthur Gutman, a senior consultant with DCI Consulting Group, and many people do not know they qualify as having a disability under ADA regulations and are not aware of what accommodations can be made for them. Sometimes individuals acquire a condition, perhaps through injury or illness, after several years on the job and don’t consider themselves as having a disability, Bonaccio added.

“Disabilities are not static and can evolve and fluctuate across life spans,” she said. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act’s definition is broad by design and protects a wide range of people. The ADA does set guidelines to define the term disability, a term that covers conditions as varied as epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, chronic fatigue, hearing loss, arthritis, vertigo, and Parkinsons, to name a few.

“An employer does not have to memorize all possible disabilities, which number well into the thousands, but must be aware of how the ADA defines disability,” Bonaccio said.

In general, though, a person may be considered as having a disability if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity, including walking, lifting, talking, seeing, hearing, breathing, or learning. Also considered is if there is a history of an impairment, such as diabetes or cancer that is in remission.

Not all people with disabilities are in wheelchairs or use a walker or cane.

“They are the most apparent but there are also many people with less visible disabilities that need workplace accommodations,” said Sam Hunter, an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Penn State, who works with autistic people.

Some of those “hidden” disabilities, according to The Invisible Disabilities Association, include debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, and mental health disorders as well as hearing and vision impairments. These are not always obvious to the onlooker but can sometimes or always limit daily activities and range from mild challenges to severe limitations that vary from person to person.

Hunter says there are some issues regarding people with disabilities that often are not considered, particularly for entry-level positions. For example, he said, most applicants undergo interviews, which can be discriminatory to some with disabilities. He cites the case of an autistic person who lacked social interaction ability and therefore came across badly to the interviewer who determined that the applicant had weak communication skills. However, the job did not require interaction with others; yet, the applicant was rejected for that reason, despite possessing the skills needed to perform the job.

“Persons with the less visible disability may not be regarded in the same manner as the person with the visible disability,” he said.

Bonaccio said “people with disabilities can be valuable contributors to an organization. Most importantly, it is not just providing a job but the quality of employment given to individuals with disabilities that will be most helpful to both the organization and the person. Providing meaningful work can enhance a positive identity for the person as well as a sense of accomplishment.”

Whether or not that will work depends upon the culture of the organization.

“Organizational culture is a key predictor in determining if a workplace is an environment where EWDs feel welcome and their efforts are valuable,” Hunter said.

He said it is important for organizations to reach out to persons with disabilities by promoting a more inclusive workforce and providing employment opportunities that permit workers to become fully engaged in their work.

Some of the major barriers persons with disabilities face, according to Bonaccio, include architectural barriers, such as inaccessible rest rooms, stairs, and work stations, and financial considerations, where an employee may fear losing government-sponsored benefits because they are working full or part time in a position that does not offer equivalent health benefits.

“There are also attitudinal barriers,” she said. “Indeed, workers with disabilities are often perceived as litigious and more entitled than their able-bodied counterparts, which is not the case. Another set of concerns surrounds negative perceptions of work performance.”

“When we talk about employment and disability, it’s important to look beyond the simple numbers,” Bonaccio continued. “It’s not sufficient to say that an organization is doing a good job because it employs people with disabilities; the quality of employment must also be scrutinized. For example, is the person with a disability employed at a level commensurate to his or her training? Do they have the same level of responsibility as similarly trained organizational peers?  If the disability appears or occurs later in an employee’s career, is he or she protected from the ‘glass cliff’ of demotions?”

Research has shown that people with disabilities want to work, despite the myth they do not, she added.

“Work is such an important part of one’s identity, especially in Western societies,” she said. “Work also has a social element: it provides belongingness to an entity outside of home lives. For some, work is related to their contribution to society and helps establish meaning in life. For others, it’s a measure of self-worth.  For most, it’s a chance to feel good about accomplishing something they personally find meaningful. Work helps promote a positive quality of life.”

The good news is that an increasingly number of EWDs who encounter barriers at work are overcoming them, according to the recently released 2015 Kessler Foundation National. The survey found employees with disabilities face three primary barriers: getting less pay than others in a similar job, negative attitudes of supervisors, and negative attitudes of coworkers. A substantial percentage of the more than 3,000 people with disabilities surveyed reported overcoming those barriers.

Bonaccio said one of the goals of her study was to advance the dialog on workers and job candidates with disabilities in the I-O community.

“The vast majority of knowledge on disability and employment is not generated among I-O psychologists but rather in fields such as rehabilitation, social work, public health, counseling and sociology,” she said. “I-O psychologists can focus greater research attention to employees with disabilities given that they are well-positioned to define what is meant by an inclusive culture and propose ways to incorporate inclusivity into daily organizational practices.”