Why Employers Don’t Hire People With Disabilities: A Survey of the Literature

Mark L. Lengnick-Hall
Philip M. Gaunt
Adrienne A. R. Brooks

Mark Lengnick-Hall is Professor of Management at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Philip Gaunt is Professor of Communication at Wichita State University, and Adrienne Brooks is a graduate student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This research was supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Education.

A data appendix specifying the correlation of studies and their placement into categories used in this paper, as well as the full bibliography, is available from Mark L. Lengnick-Hall at the College of Business, University of Texas at San Antonio, 6900 North Loop 1604 West, San Antonio, TX, 78249-0631, email mhall@utsa.edu.


Table of Contents

 

Abstract

Introduction

Trends in the Employment Rates of PWDs

Who Hires PWDs and Why?

The Paradox of Low Employment for People with Disabilities

Literature Review Methodology

Literature Review Results

Conclusion

Table Factors affecting employer attitudes as indicators of explanations for low employment of PWDs: Number of studies reviewed that address each explanation

ENDNOTES

REFERENCES

Abstract

This article reviews the literature on employer attitudes and hiring practices of people with disabilities. Despite the passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, employment rates for people with disabilities remain far lower than for people without disabilities. This article posits seven explanations for this phenomenon, examines the research to date in order to categorize which of the seven explanations has been more commonly studied, and highlights areas which have not yet been empirically analyzed. This paper goes on to offer suggestions for future research from a demand-side perspective of this issue.

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Introduction

Unemployment in the United States reached a thirty-year low by the end of 2000; those who wanted to work could find employment. Employers, on the other hand, expressed concerns over finding enough workers during this period of economic growth, and some even tapped labor pools that normally would not be considered desirable. For example, employers turned to such unconventional sources of labor as ex-convicts to fill vacant jobs (Shapiro, 2000). As employers delved deeper into the labor pool in order to find needed workers, it is surprising that one source of labor was largely ignored: people with disabilities (PWDs).

There are many reasons why employers should hire PWDs. First, PWDs represent an available trained labor supply. Second, there are economic incentives that make hiring PWDs an effective cost-based decision. Third, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation prohibit discrimination against qualified PWDs. Fourth, hiring PWDs is good for public relations – it can enhance the reputation of organizations with their stakeholders. Finally, hiring qualified PWDs conveys a sense of social responsibility. However, employment of PWDs still lags far behind that of persons without disabilities; many studies have been conducted regarding this issue.

There is no current lack of empirical studies investigating employer attitudes regarding the employment of PWDs. This paper reviews 67 different studies (including 11 unpublished dissertations) that have been conducted within the past twenty years. However, these studies tend to focus specifically on certain characteristics, or factors that might influence employer attitudes, or examine attitudes in general. Little attempt is made to demonstrate connections between the investigated topic and the larger question of why the employment rate of PWDs is so low.

Also, there is wide variance in the methodology used, which limits reliability and generalizability. Eighty-seven percent of the empirical studies reviewed in this paper most often used structured surveys, as well as phone interviews, in-person interviews, examination of archival records, with a few using a combination of a survey and some other instrument. Of the structured surveys, only 23% used validated scales: Attitudes Toward the Employability of Persons With Severe Handicaps Scale (Schmelkin & Berkell, 1989), Attitudes Toward Disabled Persons Scale (Yuker & Block, 1986), and Scales of Employer Attitudes Toward Workers with Disabilities (Kregel & Tomiyasu, 1994). The other studies either used modified versions of the above scales, or were wholly author-created. While author-created surveys are not necessarily, by definition, lacking validity, their one-time use makes them difficult to assess. Generalizability is also lacking, as many of these studies use convenience samples rather than random samples drawn from the target population. In addition, very few of the studies reviewed also mentioned having conducted a pilot test prior to survey administration. This paper attempts to demonstrate relationships between empirical research to date and the issue of why the employment of PWDs is so low.

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Trends in the Employment Rates of PWDs

There are some discrepancies in both how employment rates of PWDs are measured and reported. During the period from 1986 to 2000, figures ranged from a low of 26.6 % to a high of 34.6%, a full 8 point difference. The average rate of all data reported for this time period is around 31.24%.i Depending on the accuracy of the numbers, researchers have also been in disagreement as to the nature of the trends in rates: Livermore et al. (2000) give a figure of a 15% drop in the employment rate of men with disabilities from 1989-1997, where DeLeire (2000b) reports a more modest aggregate drop of 8% since 1990.

Indeed, the measurement used for collecting data has also significantly affected the percentages reported. The above figures are taken from all persons classified as PWDs. However, if the category is narrowed to PWDs of ages 18 or 21 to 64 (depending on polling source), who are able to work, the employment rate rises considerably to around 56-57%.ii Indeed, a joint report by the National Organization on Disability and the Louis Harris and Associates (2000) report an increase in the employment rate of PWDS who are able to work from 46% to 56%.

Regardless which figure is taken to be more accurate, the employment rate of PWDs still is far lower than the employment rates of people without disabilities. For example, while employment and earnings of men without disabilities increased during the period 1989 to 1997, employment rates for men with disabilities fell by 15% and their real median family income levels dropped by 8% (Livermore, et. al., 2000).

In contrast, the employment rate of men without disabilities was unchanged during the same time period while their median family incomes rose by 40%. While the effects were less severe for women with disabilities, the overall implication is clear: “These patterns suggest that people with disabilities actually lost ground during one of the most vigorous economic expansions in U.S. history” (Livermore, et. al., 2000).

Yelin and Katz (1994) examined National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data from 1970 to 1992 and Current Population Survey (CPS) data from 1981 to 1992 and concluded that in periods of economic downturn, individuals with disabilities experience more severe losses in labor force participation than individuals without disabilities. Furthermore, in periods of economic growth, PWDs experience less significant gains in labor force participation than those without disabilities. In summary, PWDs are often the “last hired and first fired” in the U.S. economy.

A much smaller percentage of people with disabilities is employed compared to the employment of people without disabilities. Data from the CPS (1998) show that while 30.4% of those aged 16 to 64 with a work disability were in the labor force, only 26.6% were employed. However, 82.3% of those aged 16 to 64 without a disability were in the labor force, and 78.4% of them were employed.

Not only do PWDs experience lower rates of employment, they also obtain less full-time employment than their counterparts without disabilities. Of PWDs who were employed, 63.9% held full-time jobs, whereas 81.5% of people without disabilities held full-time jobs. In comparison with those without disabilities, individuals with disabilities have experienced a disproportionate share of the growth in part-time work (Yelin, 1997).

Simple employment comparisons between PWDs and people without disabilities obscure “within-disabled” differences in unemployment. For example, Yelin (1997) found that women with disabilities have experienced substantial increases in employment, while men with disabilities have experienced significant declines.

Moreover, younger PWDs have higher employment rates than those who are older. Yelin and Trupin (2000) found that PWDs 18-24 years of age were more than six times as likely to enter jobs as those aged 55-64. Race also compounds the difficulties of PWDs in gaining employment. Yelin and Trupin (2000) found that whites with disabilities were 40 percent more likely to enter jobs when unemployed than nonwhites, after taking into account all other differences between the two groups. Consequently, employment barriers to PWDs seem to be exacerbated by age and race.

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Who Hires PWDs and Why?

Employment of PWDs varies across both organization size and industry type. Empirical surveys of Fortune 500 executives uniformly report favorable attitudes toward hiring people with disabilities (Stein, 2000). In fact, large organizations, especially those with 2,500 or more employees, are more likely than smaller organizations to proactively recruit people with disabilities, to have formal return to work or disability management programs, and to accommodate the needs of employees with disabilities (SHRM, 1998). Small employers typically have no trained staff to manage work accommodations, limited opportunities for shifting workers with disabilities into other jobs in the company, and often lack generous health or disability benefits (Livermore, et. al., 2000).

For the time period 1988 to 1997, Acemoglu & Angrist, (2000) found the greatest decline in the employment of PWDs in medium-sized firms. They attributed this to the speculation that larger employers could more easily absorb costs associated with complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, whereas small firms are exempt from the law. In summary, it appears that PWDs experience greater employment opportunities in larger organizations, and experience more difficulties in obtaining employment in medium-sized and smaller ones.

Some industries appear to be more favorable for employment of PWDs than others. Previous research is inconclusive as to whether manufacturing firms are receptive to hiring PWDs (Greenwood & Johnson, 1987). However, more recent research suggests that PWDs are better able to find employment in high-growth employment sectors versus low-growth sectors. Specifically, Yellin and Trupin (2000) found that such high growth employment sectors as professional services and wholesale/retail trade improve the odds of PWDs maintaining jobs, while low-growth sectors like agriculture, mining, construction, and manufacturing worsen the odds. Thus, it seems most likely that PWDs have the greatest opportunities for employment in service rather than manufacturing types of organizations.

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The Paradox of Low Employment for People with Disabilities

Despite good economic conditions during the decade of the 1990s and favorable public attitudes toward hiring PWDs, why has employment of PWDs shown a mostly negative trend? Several alternative explanations need to be examined in order to better understand this phenomenon. First, people with disabilities may lack the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) needed for the available jobs. Second, PWDs may be less productive than people without disabilities and entail higher labor costs, including insurance costs. Third, employer stereotypes and biases may result in less willingness to hire PWDs. Fourth, employers may fear lawsuits and related legal costs associated with employing PWDs. Fifth, employers may have concerns that coworkers will react negatively to working with PWDs. Sixth, employers may have concerns that customers will react negatively to employees with disabilities, thereby reducing sales. Finally, employers may be unaware of economic incentives that would make hiring PWDs more attractive and cost-effective, or while employers are aware of the incentives, they may not be significant enough to alter hiring practices.

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Literature Review Methodology

For the purposes of this review, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (ADA, 1990). Stone and Colella (1996) suggest that observers assign disabilities to one of six different categories: physical conditions, mental conditions, sensory impairments, learning disabilities, neurological conditions, and addictive disorders.iii

For this literature review, the key words “disabled, disability, handicapped, ADA, employer, attitudes and employment” were used to identify relevant research. Six databases were searched: ABI/INFORM, Academic Search Premiere, Article First, InfoTrac Web, Sociological Abstracts, Wilson Web Social Science Web, and PsycInfo.

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Literature Review Results

Two recent literature reviews regarding employer attitudes toward hiring PWDs were conducted by Hernandez & Keys (2000) and Unger (2002). While these reviews discussed most of the research surveyed for this paper, they followed a more limiting focus. Both articles simply reviewed the existing literature, with few attempts at critique.

The Hernandez & Keys review grouped studies into the following categories: positive global attitudes among employers, negative specific attitudes among employers, employer attitudes toward the ADA, and employer attitudes regarding vocational and/or supported-employment programs and those disabled employees hired through such programs. This study concluded by identifying five trends supported by the literature:

Employers hold more positive global attitudes toward PWDs, while specific attitudes tend to be more negative.iv
There is a correlation between prior contact with PWDs and favorable attitudes toward their employment.
Previous contact with persons with disabilities also had a relationship with employers’ acceptance of the ADA.
A discrepancy exists between employers’ willingness to hire persons with disabilities and actual hiring practices. That is, while most employers say they are willing to hire PWDs, employment statistics suggest that their behavior is not consistent with their attitudes.
A hierarchy of disabilities exists in regards to employers’ favorable attitudes toward employment of persons with disabilities. Positive attitudes were expressed toward physical and sensory disabilities much more so than intellectual or psychiatric disabilities. While these are important attitudes to understand, they alone cannot provide the answer to why employment of PWDs is so low.

The Unger (2002) study examined many of the same studies as the Hernandez & Keys study, but chose instead to highlight the factors that may affect employer attitudes in hiring PWDs. The factors identified by Unger are: the type and/or severity of the disability of the employee or applicant, previous experience on the part of the employer with PWDs, size of the employing firm or organization, sector of business or industry, and worker traits as exhibited by PWDs in comparison to coworkers without disabilities. Unger summarized six findings supported by the literature:

  1. Type and/or severity of a particular disability can have an impact on the employer’s perception of hireability of the person with the disability.
  2. Employers hold stereotypes regarding PWDs that are not substantiated by direct experience.
  3. Employers are increasingly seeing the benefit of a positive social corporate image in their community through the hiring of PWDs.
  4. Employers that have had previous experience or contact with PWDs report more favorable attitudes toward hiring PWDs.
  5. No direct relationship can be substantiated between employer size and hiring PWDs.
  6. In addition, no direct connection can be made between industry type and willingness to hire PWDs.

These factors are useful in examining possible evidence that would support the explanations given here for the negative trends in the employment of PWDs. Table 1 illustrates six factors which correlate to the explanations proposed in this paper. These factors are:

  • Previous experience or contact of the employer with PWDs
  • Worker traits of PWDs
  • Accommodation and cost issues of employing PWDs
  • Personality traits and social skills of PWDs
  • Reaction to/compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act on the part of the employer, and Support for vocational or supported-employment programs. These factors also illustrate which explanations have received the focus of current research into employer attitudes. At the same time, as clearly shown in Table 1, there is little or no research to date investigating three of the posited explanations: employers’ fear of lawsuits deters them from hiring PWDs, consumer reactions to PWDs in the workforce, and that economic incentives are ineffective because employers lack awareness of available economic incentives, or those incentives are not attractive enough to influence hiring practices.

Two factors identified by Unger, size of the employing firm or organization, and sector of business or industry, are not included in this table. As stated earlier in this paper, and in agreement with Unger’s findings, evidence that these two factors are influential in employer attitudes is inconclusive and contradictory. Therefore, a direct correlation cannot be made between them and the explanations posed in this paper. However, the remaining seven factors do have substantial support in their relationship to explanations 1-3 and 5 in this paper. This support is discussed in detail below.

  • The following sections present the evidence for each potential barrier to employment previously identified:
  • PWDs lack necessary knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs)
  • PWDs have lower productivity and entail higher costs than people without disabilities
  • Employer stereotypes lead to biased decision making unfavorable to PWDs
    Employers fear litigation associated with terminating PWDs and thus don’t risk hiring them
  • Employers don’t hire PWDs because of customer reactions, and
    Economic incentives to hire PWDs are either insufficient or not well-known

PWDs Lack Necessary KSAOs

One explanation for the low employment rate of PWDs is that they do not have the necessary KSAOs for job performance. Typical employer attitudes about whether PWDs have necessary KSAOs to perform jobs are mixed – some employers believe PWDs don’t have necessary skills and can’t work; others view PWDs as punctual, hard-working, and competent.v

What KSAOs do employers seek in potential employees and how do PWDs compare with people without disabilities? A recent study (Millington, et. al., 2000) identified a limited number of generic behavioral descriptors used as selection factors across jobs (i.e., non-specific KSAOs of desirable job candidates). The KSAOs identified in the study included:

  • Job knowledge/production skills: knowledge, skills, and abilities that the worker has or develops on the job that affect his or her ability to get the job done – competencies directly related to performing job tasks
  • Socialization and emotional coping skills: social skills the worker has that affect ability to get along with coworkers and supervisors and to cope with stress in the workplace
  • Trainability/task flexibility: academic and thinking skills a worker has that affect his or her ability to learn new skills and to be flexible in taking on new tasks
  • Dependability: behaviors that demonstrate accountability for time on task – competencies relating to being where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there
  • Motivation/satisfaction: behaviors that indicate commitment to and satisfaction with work – competencies related to job ownership, job satisfaction, and the willingness to exert effort in the performance of job tasks.

Direct comparisons between PWDs and people without disabilities across these KSAOs are incomplete, but suggestive. For example, while there are no direct data comparing the job knowledge of PWDs versus those without disabilities, there is data that suggests differences between these groups on level of education attained. PWDs have far lower levels of education than people without disabilities. Data from the CPS in 1998 shows that 31% of those with disabilities had not completed high school, whereas only 17.5% of those without disabilities had not done so (Schwochau & Blanck, 2000). Also, while 23.8% of individuals without disabilities had more than 16 years of education, only 10.5% of individuals with disabilities had more than 16 years.vi There is no data comparing PWDs and people without disabilities on socialization and emotional coping skills or trainability/task flexibility, although employers express concerns in both areas (Greenwood & Johnson, 1987). However, two studies (Lee & Newman, 1995; Shafer et al., 1988) found employers generally held positive attitudes when asked about social skills and personality traits. Regarding dependability, the evidence is quite clear that PWDs fare well. Studies show that PWDs have equal or lower levels of absenteeism than people without disabilities, and that PWDs stay with jobs they occupy (Junor, 1985; Yelin & Trupin, 2000). Lee & Newman (1995) found that seventy-two percent of the companies surveyed in their study reported the performance levels of their employees with disabilities as excellent or good. Finally, there are no direct data comparing the motivation/satisfaction of PWDs and people without disabilities.

Nine studies conducted since 1987 have all reported positive attitudes on the parts of employers toward employees with disabilities that came from vocational rehabilitation or supported-employment programs (Cook at al., 1994; Cooper, 1991; Eigenbrood & Retish, 1988; Kregel & Unger, 1993; Nietupski et al., 1996; Petty & Fussell, 1997; Sandys, 1994; Shafer et al., 1987; Wilgosh & Mueller, 1989). This trend could be indicative of employers having much more confidence in hiring PWDs who have institutional ‘evidence’ of an education that would teach the required KSAOs.

What can be concluded from this depiction of the KSAOs of PWDs? First, lower levels of education may inhibit the employability of individuals with disabilities, especially where job-specific knowledge requiring formal education is required. Employers will not hire individuals who do not have the necessary KSAOs to perform the job. Second, individuals with disabilities are equal or better than individuals without disabilities on the criterion of dependability. Third, employers react favorably to demonstrated evidence of disabled employees possessing KSAOs, such as through a vocational or supported-employment work program. In other words, certification may improve employability by reducing employer uncertainty about KSAOs of PWDs. Lastly, we simply don’t know enough about how PWDs compare with people without disabilities across the criteria of socialization and emotional coping skills, trainability and task flexibility, and motivation/satisfaction.

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PWDs Have Lower Productivity and Entail Higher Costs than the Nondisabled
Another explanation for the low employment rate of PWDs is that they are not as productive as people without disabilities, and furthermore, they cost more to hire and maintain than people without disabilities. Labor economists propose that in deciding on the types and amount of labor to use for producing a given level of output, firms will consider the contribution, or productivity of each input relative to its cost (Livermore, et. al., 2000). A firm’s objective is to minimize its costs for a desired level of output. According to this perspective, employers will weigh the benefits versus the costs of hiring alternative applicants for a position. The costs of hiring include wages, nonwage compensation, training, and other investments, whereas the potential benefits include the value of employee productivity.

Employers may choose not to hire individuals with disabilities for the following reasons:

  • They believe individuals with disabilities are less productive than equally qualified individuals without disabilities
  • They believe it will be more costly to hire individuals with disabilities because accommodations or other investments may be necessary to achieve the same level of productivity as people without disabilities, and
    They believe individuals with disabilities will be heavy users of health care benefits, thus increasing the costs of providing those benefits to employees

 

Evidence comparing the productivity of PWDs to people without disabilities is sparse. Greenwood and Johnson (1987) reviewed studies covering the period 1948 to 1981 and concluded that results support “a continuing record of quality performance.” Statistics from the U.S. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation show that 91% of workers with disabilities were rated either “average” or “better than average,” the same as their counterparts without disabilities (Stein, 2000). A study by Lee & Newman (1995) reported that 72% of employers who had hired persons with disabilities rated their job performance as average, above average, or excellent. Employers surveyed in McFarlin et al. (1991) demonstrated positive attitudes towards turnover rates, absenteeism, and performance of workers with disabilities.

However, several studies (Blessing & Jamieson, 1999; Burnham, 1991; Diska & Rogers, 1996; Fuqua et al., 1984; Johnson et al., 1988; McConnell, 1986; Scheid, 1999, and Weisenstein & Koshman, 1991) show that employers that had not previously employed persons with disabilities had great concerns regarding productivity, proper job fit (i.e. having suitable menial or repetitive tasks for PWDs to perform), accidents or injuries on the job, and worker’s compensation claims. In fact, Shafer, et. al. (1988) surveyed 125 employer evaluation forms of mentally retarded workers who were hired from a supported-employment program and found that those aspects of job performance that showed the greatest point loss over time were communication, attending to task consistently, and overall performance as compared to workers without disabilities. McConnell (1986) found that “[The] most severe barriers facing the handicapped appear to be those based on either the perception of limitations that result from the disability or an assumption that the disability will engender additional cost to employers” (185-7). In contrast, in a study of companies identified as providing excellent employment opportunities for people with mental retardation (Olson, et al., 2001), employers reported no differences in human resources costs for disabled workers from the general workforce, except for higher costs in training.

As more jobs become “knowledge work,” utilizing computers and the internet, it seems likely that productivity differences between PWDs and people without disabilities will become even more insignificant. As one individual with a disability describes, “Being a member of the e-generation, one can escape the bounds of a damaged body and compete on equal terms with those without disabilities (Gaspar, 2000).” Using the internet, individuals with disabilities can communicate with colleagues, participate in meetings and complete other work. Furthermore, working in cyberspace removes some of the stereotypes generated by fact-to-fact contact.

The information technology (IT) industry holds much promise for individuals with disabilities. “When someone is seated in front of a computer and communicating through a Web site, a wheelchair, a cane or a hearing aide becomes invisible. That’s why the IT field is such a nice fit for people with disabilities,” says Richard Dodds, a 20-year veteran of IT and director of technology at Community Options, Inc., a national nonprofit group that provides employment and residential services for people with disabilities (Solomon, 2000). Thus, the internet and computer technology become equalizers for PWDs – creating a level “playing field” for PWDs.

As a result of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many employers believe that costly accommodations and other investments are necessary in order to hire and maintain employees with disabilities and equalize productivity. A recent study found that the most common accommodations include: special equipment (18%), scheduling of breaks or flextime (16%), task substitution (11%), office redesign (10%), computer software (10%), and increased access (10%) (Mitchell et al., 1997). While some accommodations may be costly, survey data collected by JAN for the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities between October 1992 and June 1998 shows that among employers making accommodations, 20% of accommodations were made at no cost, 80% cost $1,000 or less, 17% cost between $1,001 and $5,000, and 3% cost more than $5,000 (Livermore, et. al., 2000). Other studies (Collignon, 1986; Lee & Newman, 1995) even report accommodations that cost nothing number as high as 51-54%. In addition, the annual amortized costs of these accommodations over their useful lifetime (or the tenure of PWDs employee), may be much lower.

Studies concerned with employer reactions to the American with Disabilities Act (Callahan, 1994; Lee & Newman, 1995; Moore & Crimando, 1995; Pitt-Catsouphes & Butterworth, 1995; Price & Gerber, 2001; Satcher & Hendren, 1992) show mixed responses. While the majority reports an overall positive response on the part of employers to those issues perceived not to involve additional costs (e.g. accommodations), four studies (Gilbride, et al., 1992; Moore & Crimando, 1995; Roessler & Sumner, 1997; and Walters & Baker, 1996) found that employers were very concerned about perceived costs in accommodations for workers with disabilities. Hazer & Bedell (2000) found that a job applicant’s request for accommodation of an individual with a disability can have a negative effect; the more disruptive the accommodation, the less suitable the person will be seen for hire. One interesting viewpoint on the topic of accommodation costs was revealed in a focus group reported by Pitt-Catsouphes & Butterworth (1995):

Although several of the supervisors stated that they thought that most of the accommodations made at the workplace had not been particularly expensive, the financial burden often fell on the specific department where the employee with a disability was assigned. Given the firms’ emphases on cost-cutting measures, many of the supervisors felt that this cost allocation system introduced disincentives to the hiring of individuals with disabilities. (17)

In summary, the evidence shows no significant productivity differences between PWDs and people without disabilities. However, there is still the perception that differences do exist between these two groups among employers. Furthermore, as “knowledge work” and information technology become more ubiquitous in business and industry, differences in productivity between PWDs and people without disabilities should become less. True, accommodations for PWDs may entail additional costs to employers, but evidence to date suggests that these costs are usually minor and unlikely to tip the benefit versus cost assessment away from hiring from this source of labor. However, there is support that shows those employers who are not aware of this evidence still have concerns regarding accommodation costs for employees with disabilities.

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Employer Stereotypes Lead to Biased Decision Making Unfavorable to PWDs
The low employment rate of PWDs may be explained by negative stereotypes held by employers about them that result in unfavorable selection decisions. Stereotypes are largely false “overgeneralized” beliefs about members of a category that are typically negative (Stone & Colella, 1996). Stereotypes ascribed to persons with disabilities may be divided into six specific dimensions:

  • Social or Interpersonal Competence: e.g., shy, quiet, aloof, distant
  • Task Competence: e.g., helpless, dependent, noncompetitive
  • Concern for Others: e.g., nonegotistical, benevolent
  • Integrity: e.g., saintlike, honest
  • Emotional Adjustment: e.g., bitter, unhappy, nervous, hypersensitive
  • Potency or Strength: e.g., unaggressive, submissive

Stereotypes are used as a basis for generating expectancies about persons with disabilities (Stone & Colella, 1996). Expectancies are anticipatory beliefs about the individual based on category membership and stereotypes. If a person is categorized as physically disabled, the observer also derives expectancies about the person from stereotyped assumptions made about people with physical disabilities as a group. For example, if the stereotype of people with amputations is that they are bitter or unhappy, then a hiring manager may expect that a job applicant with an amputated leg will have problems interacting with customers.

Physical disabilities are generally viewed more favorably than mental disabilities. Greenwood, et al. (1991) found that Projects With Industry placement specialists rated employers as being more willing to hire individuals with physical disabilities than those with emotional, mental, or communication disabilities, to have the least difficulty in recruiting and selecting these workers, and to expect better work performance from them. In another study, students and human resource professionals were asked to rate the employment suitability of applicants (Hazer & Bedell, 2000). Results showed that candidates with a psychiatric disability were given significantly lower suitability ratings than candidates with no disabilities.

Koser et al. (1999) asked human resource professionals to choose one of two candidates with similar backgrounds. Results showed that a job applicant who uses a wheelchair was more likely to be hired than an employee taking medication for depression or anxiety. In a survey of Fortune 500 companies, Jones, et al., (1991) found that the physically handicapped ranked much higher as desirable employees than did the psychiatrically handicapped. Furthermore, few employers had specific employment policies regarding the psychiatrically handicapped.

This perception of a hierarchy in disabilities regarded to be more or less desirable has been reported in other studies as well (Buccini, 1981; Fuqua et al., 1984, and McConnell, 1986). Interestingly, Gilbride, et al. (2000) found that employers in a Midwestern state preferred hiring persons with mental disabilities, while employers in a Southeastern state preferred hiring persons with physical disabilities.

Many studies have investigated the relationship between employer attitudes toward hiring persons with disabilities and previous experience with PWDs on the part of the employer (Blessing & Jamieson, 1999; Diska & Rogers, 1996; Ehrhart, 1995; Fabian et al., 1995; Kanter, 1988; Kregel & Tomiyasu, 1994, Levy et al., 1992; Levy et al., 1993; McFarlin et al, 1991; Park, 1996; Parker, 1981; Scheid, 1999; Tobias, 1990; Walters & Baker, 1995). Most of these studies have found that prior positive contact has a direct relationship with favorable employer attitudes. Only two of these studies (Ehrhart, 1995; Tobias, 1990) did not support this evidence.

Jobs can also be stereotyped, and these stereotypes can be used to exclude applicants with disabilities as not well-suited. The nature of the job elicits prototypical images about job requirements (Stone & Colella, 1996). The combination of stereotypes about applicants with disabilities and stereotypes about job requirements may lead to incorrect decisions and unfair discrimination. Stone and Colella (1996) provide a poignant example:

[O]bservers may classify a hearing-impaired (i.e., deaf) person as incapable of performing the job of a supervisor because the job requires face-to-face communication and the ability to communicate with others on a telephone. The reason for this is that the prototypical hearing-impaired person cannot understand or orally communicate with others. This inference, however, may be incorrect about a particular hearing-impaired person who has the ability to read lips and communicate orally with others.

Greenwood and Johnson (1987) found that employers were more willing to consider the physically disabled for jobs that were sedentary, had less pressure, and had less interpersonal contact. This seems consistent with the concept of job prototypes that are congruent with stereotypes of PWDs.

While stereotypes are typically negative, some limited research has shown a positive bias in favor of hiring PWDs. In one study, applicants depicted as having a disability were rated higher on employment characteristics and management potential scales than applicants without a disability (Christman & Slaten, 1991). Another study had similar findings showing that job candidates with disabilities were rated more highly than those without disabilities (Nordstrom, et. al. 1998). These studies suggest that in some cases, having a physical disability may be viewed as a desirable KSAO. However, more research is needed to substantiate these findings and understand the causal relationships.

In summary, stereotypes of PWDs may affect selection decisions causing some applicants with disabilities not to be hired. However, stereotypes may also operate to the advantage of PWDs in some situations. Unfortunately, there is no direct research evidence that indicates how much of the unemployment of individuals with disabilities is due to stereotypes resulting in biased decisions. At most, we can conclude that the processes by which biased decisions could result have been well articulated but not well-researched.

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Employers Fear Litigation Associated with Terminating PWDs and Thus Don’t Risk Hiring Them

One explanation that has been offered to account for the declining employment of PWDs during the 1990s after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities is that employers fear lawsuits related to hiring and firing them. Anecdotal evidence supports this possibility. For example, Debbie Cook, project director at the Washington Assistive Technology Alliance in Seattle, Washington received a call from a manager complaining about a worker’s guide dog smelling up the office, and wanted to know what to do about it (Raths, 1999). Cook realized that the manager had not raised the subject with the blind worker because of fear of “offending the person, or … of being sued.”

A supervisor in one of the focus groups conducted by Pitt-Catsouphes and Butterworth (1995) reported that although top management focused strongly on job skills when hiring persons with disabilities, once those employees were hired, lower level managers were told in no uncertain terms that employees with disabilities, regardless of job performance, were to stay, no matter what.

From July, 1992 to September, 1997 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 90,803 charges under the Americans With Disabilities Act (Acemoglu & Angrist, 2000). Of those charges filed directly with the EEOC, 29% were related to failure to provide accommodation, 9.4% were related to discrimination at the hiring stage, and 62.9% were for wrongful termination. Clearly, the largest percentage of charges concern claims of unfair termination. Thus, employers may fear that once hired, unsatisfactory employees with disabilities may be costly to terminate. However, statistics show this concern should not be an issue. Allbright (2002) and Lee (2001) reviewed a total of 696 lawsuits charging violations of the ADA. Of these, 96% of the decisions were favorable for the employer, either through summary judgment or through merits of the case. Analysis of these cases suggests that if employers do individual assessments of whether an individual is covered by law, and whether accommodation is reasonable, courts most often defer to the employer’s judgment, resulting in minimal legal liability. Lee also goes on to posit that with the new Supreme Court ruling in 2002 regarding what constitutes a normal life act, the number of plaintiffs winning their cases will be less.

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act is the most prominent protective legislation, it has generated recent interest in its impact on the employment of PWDs. Results of research examining the impact of the ADA on hiring PWDs is best described as mixed. For example, DeLeire (2000b) found an 8% decline in the relative employment rate for individuals with disabilities after 1990, and attributed that decline to the ADA. The effects were larger for those individuals who had mental disabilities, were younger, and had less education.

Acemoglu and Angrist (2000) analyzing CPS data, concluded that the ADA reduced employment for workers with disabilities aged 21-39, while there was a post-ADA decline in the employment of men with disabilities aged 40-58, there was no clear evidence of an effect on women aged 40-58.

However, neither DeLeire’s (2000b) nor Acemoglu and Angrist’s (2000) results were definitive in attributing negative results to the ADA. In fact, DeLeire (1997) found that minorities with disabilities experienced an increase in their probability of employment. In addition, those with high school or college diplomas also experienced increases. Also, individuals whose disabilities were the result of injury had higher employment after the ADA was passed. Acemoglu and Angrist (2000) found that the number of weeks worked by disabled women ages 40-58 increased relative to the weeks worked by women with disabilities over the 1993-1996 period. Therefore, a firm conclusion that the ADA had only negative impacts on the employment of PWDs is not substantiated.

In summary, while the fear of litigation may have some impact on the employment of PWDs, evidence to date is indirect and inconclusive. Examining hiring data before and after the ADA, it is difficult to eliminate all alternative explanations for declines, even though both studies described earlier controlled for several possibilities. Even if their results are accepted, it is clear that the impact of the ADA on the employment of PWDs is not uniform.

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Employers Don’t Hire PWDs Because of Coworker Reactions

Coworker reactions present a possibility for explaining why employers hire fewer workers with disabilities. Employers may fear that coworkers will react negatively to working with PWDs and thereby lower productivity, increase labor costs, and make their organizations less profitable. Greenwood and Johnson (1987) concluded that while the evidence for these concerns regarding PWDs is mixed, there is “a continuing concern about coworker relationships, particularly when mental and emotional disabilities are involved.”

What concerns might coworkers have about working with individuals with disabilities? Stone and Colella (1996) propose three possibilities. First, coworkers may fear a negative effect on work-related outcomes. For example, individuals without disabilities may fear an increase in their workloads as a result of working with an individual with a disability. In conditions of task interdependence, coworkers may fear a loss of rewards if their own job performance is dependent upon an individual with a disability’s job performance. Colella, et al. (1998) found some support for this reaction in a laboratory experiment.

Second, coworkers may fear a negative effect on personal outcomes. Individuals without disabilities may fear that some disabilities are contagious (even when they are not). People without disabilities may also feel resentment regarding accommodations and special treatment received by PWDs (Colella, 2001).

Third, coworkers may fear a negative effect on interpersonal outcomes. For example, coworkers may feel awkwardness, discomfort, ambivalence, and guilt about how they should interact with PWDs. This may result in avoidance behavior and exclusion of PWDs from formal and informal work groups. All of these coworker concerns may play an even more important role in organizations structured around teams, where team members get to hire their coworkers.

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Employers Don’t Hire PWDs Because of Customer Reactions

Likewise, employers may fear that customers may have negative reactions to interactions with employees with disabilities and transact less business with their organizations. Both explanations are plausible, and interestingly, both explanations were offered in the past to explain employer reluctance to hire other minority groups, such as women, Blacks, and Hispanics. However, this argument ignores the fact that PWDs earn $3630.5 billion in yearly aggregate income (McNeil, 2000). By not hiring PWDs, organizations may be losing revenue as well.

While there is no research on this phenomenon, one might expect similar responses to those described previously for coworkers. For work-related outcomes, customers may fear that employees with disabilities do not produce high quality products or are incapable of delivering the same level of service as workers without disabilities. For personal outcomes, customers may hold similar fears as coworkers regarding the contagion of disabilities. For interpersonal outcomes, customers may likewise fear feelings of awkwardness, discomfort, ambivalence, and guilt about how they should interact with PWDs. All of these explanations are plausible; however, there is no research that has been conducted in this area.

In summary, employers may choose not to hire individuals with disabilities because of fears about negative coworker and customer reactions. Several theoretical explanations have been proposed that seem quite plausible. Unfortunately, virtually no research has been conducted to test the validity of these propositions.

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Economic Incentives to Hire PWDs Are Either Insufficient or Not Well-Known

If employers were provided economic incentives to hire PWDs, it is logical to conclude that there would be higher rates of PWDs employed—assuming the incentives were known, understood, and perceived as favorable. However, there are also disincentives for PWDs to seek employment that provide a countervailing force against the employers’ economic incentives. For example, the receipt of some federal disability payments is contingent upon certain work restrictions. Thus, employers may be encouraged to hire PWDs at the same time that PWDs are being encouraged not to work. Leonard (1986) reported the more generous the benefits to PWDs worker and the poorer the labor market conditions, the more males with disabilities drop out of the labor market and enroll for SSDI.

Economic incentives make it possible for employers to reduce their tax burdens and offset potential or realized costs of hiring individuals with disabilities (Livermore, et. al., 2000). These incentives include: (a) Section 190 Deductions, (b) Section 44 Credits, (c) The Work Opportunity Tax Credit, (d) Disabled Access Credit, IRC Section 144, (e) Architectural/Transportation Tax Deduction, IRC Section 190, and (f) Mentor-Protégé Program, P.L. 102-172, Section 8064A, and (g) the Veterans Job Training Act.

There is no known research that has assessed the effectiveness of economic incentives for employers on employment rates of PWDs. Economic incentives are structured in two forms: tax credits and tax deductions. Tax credits result in a dollar-for-dollar reduction in a taxpayer’s liability since they are subtracted directly from the tax burden. On the other hand, tax deductions result in a smaller proportional reduction, since they are subtracted from taxable income.

Some research has shown that employers are receptive to both tax credits and on-the-job salary funds (Blessing & Jamieson, 1999; Collignon, 1986; Greenwood, et. al., 1991), while one study reported that to the employers surveyed, economic incentives were not considered important (Olson, et al., 2001).

There is no known research that has assessed the effectiveness of economic incentives for employers on employment rates of PWDs. Therefore, three alternatives could be offered to explain why these incentives may not be effective. First, the incentives are inadequate to affect employer hiring decisions. Second, the incentives are adequate, but either largely unknown by employers or require so much “red tape” that employers choose not to take advantage of them. Third, the incentives are both inadequate and largely unknown by employers. Further research is needed to properly evaluate the effectiveness of incentives and to make appropriate policy changes/recommendations.

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Conclusion

This paper has sought to address the issue of low employment for PWDs. Six possible explanations were proposed and research evidence for each explanation investigated. In summary, we have found that first, lower levels of education may inhibit the employability of individuals with disabilities, especially where job-specific knowledge and formal education is required. However, individuals with disabilities rate equal or better than people without disabilities on the criterion of dependability. We simply don’t know enough about how PWDs compare across the criteria of socialization and emotional coping skills, trainability and task flexibility, and motivation/satisfaction.

Second, the evidence shows no productivity differences between PWDs and people without disabilities. Furthermore, as “knowledge work” and information technology become more ubiquitous in business and industry, differences in productivity between PWDs and people without disabilities should become less. Accommodations for PWDs may entail additional costs to employers, but evidence to date suggests that these costs are usually minor and unlikely to tip the benefit versus cost assessment away from hiring from this source of labor.

Third, stereotypes of PWDs may affect selection decisions causing some applicants with disabilities not to be hired. However, stereotypes may also operate to the advantage of PWDs in some situations. Unfortunately, there is no direct research evidence that indicates how much of the unemployment of PWDs is due to stereotypes resulting in biased decisions. At most, we can conclude that the processes by which biased decisions could result have been well-articulated but not well-researched.

Fourth, while the fear of litigation may have some impact on the employment of PWDs, evidence to date is indirect and inconclusive. There are within-disability group differences suggesting that some PWDs have been helped by the ADA while others have been hindered in gaining employment.

Fifth and sixth, while employers may choose not to hire individuals with disabilities because of fears about negative coworker and customer reactions, there is virtually no research to support these claims. However, several theoretical explanations have been proposed that seem quite plausible.

Finally, there is no known research that has assessed the effectiveness of economic incentives for employers on employment rates of PWDs. We do not know whether employers find the available incentives inadequate, too much trouble to obtain, or if they simply are not aware of them.

There are two primary approaches to improving the employment of PWDs: (a) supply-side, and (b) demand-side. Supply-side approaches focus on preparing PWDs for employment and then facilitating their placement with employers. The focus is primarily on PWDs and secondarily on employers. On the other hand, demand-side approaches focus primarily on employers, creating a desire in them to hire PWDs. While the results benefit PWDs, employers are the primary focus.

More emphasis on demand-side approaches seems warranted. First, as discussed earlier, the impact of the Americans With Disabilities Act is mixed. While it seems to have had some positive benefits, those benefits are not comprehensive. Second, supply-side approaches of job preparation and job placement have met with only modest success.

The low employment (or high unemployment) rates of individuals with disabilities pose a continuing problem for society, individuals with disabilities, and employers. First, individuals with disabilities require varying levels of resource support. Barriers to employment make it more difficult for those individuals with disabilities who are capable, from reducing or even eliminating that support. Second, individuals with disabilities have the same desires and needs for job and career satisfaction as their counterparts without disabilities. Barriers to employment deny them the opportunity to achieve those outcomes. Third, employers need the best talent available to survive in the ever-increasing competitive global market. Barriers to employment prevent employers from discovering and benefiting from the talented individuals who have disabilities. By first understanding the causes of the problem and then designing solutions to address the problem, we can create a win-win solution for society, individuals with disabilities, and employers.

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TABLE 1

Factors affecting employer attitudes as indicators of explanations for low employment of PWDs: Number of studies reviewed that address each explanation

Explanations for Low Employment of PWDs

Factors Affecting Employer Attitudes KSAO’s Productivity & Costs Employer Biases Fear of Lawsuits Coworker Reactions Customer Reactions Economic incentives
Disability 31 4
Previous Experience 14
Worker Traits 3 16 2
Accomidation & Costs 10
Personality Traits/Social Skills 2 3 2
Reaction to Compliance with ADA 7
Vocational or Supported Employment 9
Total 14 33 48 0 8 0 0

Note: Aggregate total in table exceeds total number of studies as some studies investigated more than one factor.
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ENDNOTES

I For example, the NOD/Harris Polls for 1986, 1998, and 2000, respectively, reported unemployment rates for PWDs at 66%, 71%, and 68%. In 1993, the US Bureau of Census reported an unemployment rate of 65.4%, while CPS reported 73.4% in 1998. Indeed, one source that is normally taken to be accurate and reliable by many researchers – the CPS – is being challenged as to its usefulness as a measure of employment for PWDs. Thomas W. Hale, an economist in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2001), contends that CPS data cannot be used, as there is no definable disability measure built into the survey.

ii The US Census Bureau (2000) reported that of people 21-64 years old, PWDs who were able to work showed an unemployment rate of 43%, while the NOD/Harris report for the same year reported the figure to be 44% for ages 18-64.

iii See Stone and Colella (1996) for further explanation and for a number of dimensions across which these types of disabilities may vary.

iv Hernandez et al. (2000) define global attitudes as “ . . . evaluative responses concerning a general topic that typically do not involve declaring planned actions or intentions” (p. 5). They further describe specific attitudes as having “a narrow scope and may include a statement of intended behavior” (p.5), such as employers’ willingness to actually hire persons with disabilities.

v For excellent examples of the range of these opinions, see Brown (1997), Gaspar (2000), and “Retailer gains quality staff members by hiring the disabled” (1996).

vi More current data from CPS suggests these trends are improving. From the CPS of March 2001, PWDs without a high school diploma fell to 28%, while those with a college degree increased slightly to 11%. However, see footnote 1 regarding the advisability of relying wholly on CPS data concerning PWDs.

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