Disability: The New Diversity for Talent Acquisition Practitioners

Northeast ADA Center Staff April 26, 2020

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Hannah Rudstam, Northeast ADA Center, Cornell University

How are hiring decisions really made? Consider the following two real-life descriptions of hiring committees assessing candidates. As you’re reading, guess the year when this took place. The first involved making a hiring decision for a principal in a large elementary school. The hiring committee was all school administrators; all men. We were going through applicants one by one. We came to the one applicant who was a woman. Her resume looked pretty good and it seemed she was qualified for the job. For a few seconds, there was complete silence in the room. Then, the committee chair said, “Well, if we hire her, we’d have to get new curtains and clean the floor.” The hiring committee all laughed and then they just laid aside her resume and started discussing the next applicant. You can probably guess the year this event happened. It was 1964. 


Now consider this story that happened during the meeting of the hiring committee for a product designer in an IT firm. The search committee was meeting to make a decision about who to bring in for an interview. We started reviewing one applicant who seemed to be quite well-qualified. On his resume, he listed volunteer work for a disability advocacy group and participating on a para-sports team. One person on the committee googled the applicant and found a picture of him using a wheelchair. The chair of the hiring committee then said that this job involved quite a bit of travel and that might be a problem for him given his condition. His resume was quietly put aside and we went on to other candidates. He was never mentioned again. This took place not in 1964, but in 2013.  


Despite the nearly five decades that separates these two events, there are clear parallels. Both these individuals were quickly dismissed as viable candidates, not because of their talents or qualifications, but because of unquestioned, knee-jerk assumptions about their capabilities and talents. In 1964, few questioned the automatic assumption that women were not capable of being high school principals. Since 1964 ideas about the capabilities of women have, thankfully, changed. But, for the most part, ideas about the capabilities job-seekers with disabilities have not. In 2016, too few employers question the automatic assumption that individuals with disabilities cannot bring value-added talents to the workplace and can only be seen as charity hires. 


Several research studies over the last two decades have shown that individuals with disabilities, as compared with workers without disabilities,  perform as well, are as productive, are increasingly qualified for today’s workforce, and do not pose any greater safety risks in the workplace. Yet, misperceptions about the capabilities and risks of hiring individuals with disabilities continue to run rampant in recruitment and hiring. In a recent experiment conducted by Rutgers and Syracuse Universities , a fictitious resume was submitted for accounting jobs in several organizations. This resume described an applicant who clearly met the qualifications of the job. Some of these resumes included a brief mention of a disability; others did not. The “applicants” who identified as having a disability were 26% less likely to be contacted by the employer than were those without a disability. 


But the news is not all bad for applicants with disabilities. Many businesses are now starting to realize that their talent acquisition efforts are weakened by failing to meaningfully source the full range of talent available to the organization, including qualified candidates with disabilities.   Recruitment and hiring practitioners stand at the forefront of this realization. Here are some points for talent acquisition professionals to consider.


Individuals with disabilities are striving to work. The automatic assumption that individuals with disabilities can’t or don’t want to work was recently challenged by a Kessler Foundation study Nearly 70% of individuals with disabilities surveyed were either already employed or actively striving to work. 


Increasingly qualified. Ever heard this? “We’d love to hire individuals with disabilities, but we can’t find any who are qualified.” Thanks to advancements in access to education, individuals with disabilities increasingly have the qualifications needed for today’s jobs. Another Kessler Foundation study showed that the educational achievement gap between the number of students with and without disabilities is narrowing. Also, mentoring and internship programs for students with disabilities have provided them with valued work experience


Policy change. As of 2014, employers who are federal contractors/subcontractors have new requirements to recruit and hire individuals with disabilities into their workforce. Under a recent rule change of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, these employers must now show progress toward having a workforce with 7% of workers with disabilities. Talent acquisition practitioners play a key role in meeting this goal.


Asking or telling about a disability. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (hotlink to limit what recruiters and employers may ask during the hiring process. In general, the ADA prohibits recruiters or employers from asking individual applicants about disability prior to making a job offer. However, under Rehabilitation Act Section 503 (hotlink to, employers who are federal contractors must invite all applicants to voluntarily self-identify as a person with a disability. This self-identification is different from the personal disclosure of a disability prohibited by the ADA. Disability self-identification information is confidential and is not used to assess individual candidates. Rather, this data is just used in aggregate to track the organization’s progress in meeting their disability workforce goals.    


Social media and online accessibility. According to a 2015 survey from Jobvite, 87% of recruiters now use LinkedIn as a primary source to find job applicants. Generally, job-seekers with disabilities have under-used LinkedIn and other social media in their job search efforts. There could be several reasons for this. First, the accessibility of social media is uneven, with work-arounds often being less effective and more time-consuming. Second, placement professionals working with job-seekers with disabilities may not always understand the power of social media in a job-search. Finally, job-seekers themselves might not believe in the value of using social networking in their job search.  Though it is possible to find qualified applicants with disabilities on LinkedIn, other sources of talent may be needed.


Sourcing talent with disabilities. Forming partnerships.

Here are some sources to find qualified candidates with disabilities.

·        GettingHired allows employers to connect with qualified candidates with disabilities across a variety of sectors and jobs. 

·        Our Ability, Inc. enables employers to find qualified job candidates and interns for their workforce.

·        COSD (Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities) connects employers with college students and recent graduates with disabilities.

·        Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies. Your state vocational rehabilitation agency can help you connect with qualified candidates with disabilities in your region. 

·        Workforce Recruitment Program. Find college students and recent graduates with disabilities for your workforce.

·        Employer Assistance and Resource Network. Find qualified candidates with disabilities from across the country.

·        Employment Referral Resource Directory. There are many agencies to partner with in your state or region to find qualified talent with disabilities. This directory can provide a list of these recruitment resources. 


Finally, disability inclusiveness sends a message that’s heard not only by current employees, but also by all those who are making a decision about where to work. In today’s labor market, job-seekers are likely to have a choice. When they make this choice, they will consider questions about the values and climate of the workplace. Does this workplace value the talents and contributions of everyone? Does this organization value the same things I do? How do people treat each other here? Having a disability inclusive workplace sends a message about what an organization stands for. Disability inclusiveness is part of the “brand” of the workplace culture and value—part of the face of the organization to all job-seekers. When applicants look at your organization, what will they see?