NEW YORK — Employers appear to discriminate against well qualified job candidates who have a disability, researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse universities have concluded.
The researchers, who sent résumés and cover letters on behalf of fictitious candidates for thousands of accounting jobs, found that employers expressed interest in candidates who disclosed a disability about 26 percent less frequently than in candidates who did not.
“I don’t think we were astounded by the fact that there were fewer expressions of interest” for people with disabilities, said Lisa Schur, a Rutgers political scientist who was part of the research team. “But I don’t think we were expecting it to be as large.”
The sole variation among the otherwise identically qualified candidates appeared in the cover letters, which revealed a disability for some but not for others. The study, although it deals only with the accounting profession, may help explain why just 34 percent of working age people with disabilities were employed as of 2013, versus 74 percent of those without disabilities.
Previous studies attempting to explain why disabled people are employed at lower rates generally suffered from their inability to control for subtle differences in qualifications that may have made disabled job candidates less attractive to employers, or for the possibility that disabled people were simply less interested in employment.
Other studies, based on surveys or laboratory experiments that asked people how likely they would be to hire a hypothetical disabled candidate, suffered from the possibility that some respondents were simply telling researchers what they thought was socially acceptable.
Volunteers in such studies may have also differed in key ways from the human resources personnel who act as gatekeepers for job candidates, according to Meera Adya, another coauthor, who is a social psychologist at Syracuse University.
The fictitious cover letter approach, which other scholars have used to document discrimination on the basis of race and gender, largely solved these problems.
“These kinds of experiments are very important in research on discrimination, and to the best of my knowledge this is the first serious attempt to do this kind of experiment on disability discrimination in the United States,” said David Neumark, a labor economist at the University of California Irvine who studies discrimination. “The study is well done.”
The researchers constructed two separate résumés: one for a highly qualified candidate with six years of experience, and one for a novice candidate about one year out of college. For each résumé, they created three different cover letters: one for a candidate with no disability, one for a candidate who disclosed a spinal cord injury, and one for a candidate who disclosed having Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that can make social interaction difficult.
Earlier studies had suggested that better qualifications might help disabled candidates overcome employment discrimination, but the researchers found the opposite.
Employers were about 34 percent less likely to show interest in an experienced disabled candidate, but only about 15 percent less likely to express interest in a disabled candidate just starting out his or her career. (The latter result was not statistically significant.)
“We created people who were truly experts in that profession,” said Mason Ameri, a PhD candidate with the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, who was another one of the researchers. “We thought the employer would want to at least speak to this person, shoot an email, send a phone call, see if I could put a face to a name.”
For the gap between disabled and nondisabled to be larger among experienced candidates than among novice candidates, he said, came as a surprise.
Ameri and his colleagues speculated that the steeper dropoff in interest for experienced disabled candidates arose because more experienced workers represent a larger investment for employers, who must typically pay such workers higher salaries and who may anticipate the employment relationship lasting longer.
Experienced workers are also more likely to interact with clients on a regular basis. Regardless of whether these concerns are legitimate, Schur said, “employers see these people as riskier.”
The researchers found that the decline in interest in disabled workers was roughly the same whether the disability was a spinal cord injury or Asperger’s. If it were the result of a specific concern — for example, that candidates with Asperger’s would have a hard time interacting with clients, or that employers would have to build ramps for workers in wheelchairs — rather than a general bias against people with disabilities, it is unlikely that people with such distinct disabilities would have experienced a dropoff in interest of about the same magnitude.
The study showed that the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 federal law banning discrimination against those with disabilities, appeared to reduce bias. The lack of interest in disabled workers — and especially in the rate at which they were called back for an interview — was most pronounced in workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, the study found. Businesses that small are not covered by the federal law.
At publicly traded companies, which may be more concerned about their reputations and more sensitive to charges of discrimination, evidence of discrimination on the basis of disability seemed largely to disappear.
The same was true at firms that receive federal contracts, which are required by the government to make a special effort to hire disabled workers.