Categories: General

By Erin Binney

Although most companies say they are open to employing people with disabilities, only about half actually hire applicants with disabilities and even fewer seek them out, according to a survey released Oct. 5, 2010, and sponsored by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability (NOD). It appears that companies have scaled back their disability hiring initiatives over the past 15 years.

Fifty-six percent of employers have hired someone with a disability in the past three years, down from 64 percent who reported having done so in 1995, the 2010 Survey of Employment of Americans with Disabilities found. The U.S. recession and high unemployment are partially to blame.

However, in 2010, fewer companies:

  • Have a disability policy or program as defined by the study (29 percent vs. 66 percent in 1995).
  • Have a specific person or department that oversees the hiring of people with disabilities (19 percent vs. 40 percent in 2005).
  • Offer an education program to help employees learn to work with people with disabilities (18 percent vs. 63 percent in 2005).

Harris Interactive conducted the survey by phone and online between March 29 and April 23, 2010. It captures the responses of 411 senior executive and human resource managers within the United States.

Diversity vs. Disability Programs

Employment continues to elude a large number of people with disabilities, despite passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. According to a previous Kessler Foundation/NOD study released in July 2010, “employment is still the area where people with disabilities seem to be at the greatest disadvantage compared to the rest of the population.” That survey found that only 21 percent of working-age people with disabilities have a full- or part-time job, compared with 59 percent of people who don’t have a disability.

The more recent survey reveals that companies are thinking broadly about diversity, but not necessarily about disability. For example, 70 percent of companies have a general diversity program, but only two-thirds include disability as a component. Diversity programs are more likely to focus on race and ethnicity.

Programs and policies that focus on disability are less common. Twenty-five percent of companies have a disability policy, while 12 percent have a disability program. Just 8 percent of the respondents have both.

A disability policy is a stated objective to hire people with disabilities, explained Carol Glazer, president of the NOD, in an interview. “Many companies have policies simply to comply with the ADA,” she noted.

A disability program, on the other hand, typically has specific goals with dedicated staff to help reach those goals and involves actions that change hiring practices, she said.

Only about half of the survey respondents with a disability program (49 percent) said their program includes some form of active recruitment of people with disabilities. More often, the programs are concerned with creating or improving the reasonable accommodation process (81 percent) or offering disability awareness training (63 percent).

Even so, companies with disability programs are more likely to have hired someone with a disability in the past three years (68 percent vs. 55 percent with only a policy and 41 percent with neither a policy nor a program).

Breaking Down Barriers

Hiring of people with disabilities might have trailed off since 1995 because companies’ efforts back then represented an early response to the ADA, Glazer said, and might have been “more in the realm of compliance.”

High unemployment overall accounts for some of the hiring decline, noted Rodger DeRose, president and CEO of Kessler.

DeRose said there is still a lot of uncertainty for employers surrounding hiring people with disabilities. For instance, some companies are concerned that workers with disabilities will be absent more or will be less productive, he said.

Others fear an increase in health care costs for people with disabilities and costs associated with accommodations, Glazer added.

In reality, workers with disabilities have lower rates of absenteeism and turnover and higher rates of loyalty, DeRose said. And, the costs of hiring people with disabilities are no higher than hiring people without disabilities, according to Glazer.

These statistics have gotten through to some employers. A majority (62 percent) of survey respondents think that the costs of hiring a person with a disability would be the same as hiring a person without a disability, and 2 percent perceive the costs to be less.

One-third think employees with disabilities have more dedication (35 percent) and less turnover (33 percent).

‘An Important Frontier’

So what else is keeping employers from hiring people with disabilities?

Besides an absence of job openings, the biggest barrier to hiring people with disabilities is not being able to find qualified candidates, according to the survey. Two-thirds of the respondents (66 percent) said a lack of qualified candidates is a major or minor reason why they haven’t hired more people with disabilities in the past three years, and 39 percent say they are not sure how to find qualified candidates.

Service provider agencies can help companies find qualified candidates with disabilities, but employers might be under-using these agencies, the survey found.

Forty percent of the respondents reported using nonprofit or community-based service provider agencies, while 39 percent said they recruit people with disabilities through state or federal providers, such as Vocational Rehabilitation.

However, only one-third (34 percent) rated the service provider agencies as effective.

Glazer said employers can get the most of their partnerships with service provider agencies by:

  • Employing a dedicated, knowledgeable person or people to work with the agencies.
  • Cultivating relationships with vendors to determine which one would be the best fit for the company.
  • Explaining the company’s needs to the service provider agency selected.

Even if there aren’t many jobs now, that will likely change in coming years as Baby Boomers retire, Glazer said. Recruiters will need to look at untapped labor markets, such as people with disabilities, to fill open positions.

It’s not too soon to start developing a program. If you’re not hiring people with disabilities, “as an HR professional, you’re missing out on an important frontier in hiring in terms of talent,” DeRose remarked.

He added that it’s important for companies not to pigeonhole people with disabilities by assuming that they are suited only for certain jobs. “Many of these folks can be going into accounting, marketing or leadership roles,” DeRose said. “You need to see the person, not the disability.”

Erin Binney is a staff writer for SHRM.