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Why Don’t We Hire People With Disabilities?


Misconceptions about disabled workers are causing companies to miss out on fantastic talent

Group of people in the office

Canada has a pretty dismal track record employing adults with disabilities. And it’s not because job seekers lack education, training, a desire to work or the skills to do the job. 

The employment rate among Canadian working-age adults with a disability is 49 per cent compared to 79 per cent for those without a disability. In the United States, the numbers are even worse. An estimated 35 per cent of people with disabilities are employed compared to 76 per cent without disabilities. That’s according to a paper published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, co-authored by Smith School of Business graduate Catherine Connelly. 

“The bottom line is that all over the world a person with a disability is less likely to be employed than a person without a disability,” says Connelly, a professor of organizational behaviour and Canada Research Chair at McMaster University in Hamilton. 

The term “disability” itself is not always well defined, so it’s not clear to everyone who has a disability and who does not. In a workplace setting, however, disability means a health condition that interferes with how an employee goes about their daily activities. “We have this idea that disability means using a wheelchair, but that’s not always the case,” Connelly says.

For example, a worker whose arthritis makes it difficult to use a pen may require a tablet or dictation software to get the job done. “It definitely doesn’t mean that you cannot do anything,” Connelly adds. 

So why then do companies fail to hire more people with disabilities? After all, many firms have inclusion policies. And many governments have fair-hiring laws. Yet Connelly’s paper (“The participation of people with disabilities in the workplace across the employment cycle”) finds that stubborn misconceptions persist among employers. Some even equate a disability with an inability to work.

Connelly says employer concerns can be summarized in three key areas: a perceived dearth of applicants; misconceptions around accommodation costs; and worries about negative impacts on workplace culture. Here, she helps us understand each misconception and offers potential solutions. 

Misconception No. 1

Few disabled people are qualified for, or apply to, job posts

Hiring managers—and this can include anyone from the company owner to human resources personnel—often underestimate the number of disabled job applications they get. They also underestimate how many disabled people their company has already on staff. “There’s a bit of a myth that there are not enough people with disabilities who are qualified to do excellent work and who are interested in the jobs available,” Connelly says.

Connelly has spoken to countless employers who, when asked how many people with disabilities they have on staff, will say “zero.” But, based on what is known about the workforce, “zero is very unrealistic,” she says.

Around 11 per cent of Canada’s working-age population reports living with a disability. But job applicants don’t always disclose their condition in an interview or during the hiring process. Nor do employees always report when a disability, such as hearing loss, develops during their years with a company. Reasons range from a fear of rejection or negative repercussions to their careers, to simply not wanting to feel different from their peers.

Connelly notes that while some managers still equate a disability with an overall inability to work, this outdated attitude is thankfully changing. At work, the focus should be on whether, and how, a disability may affect one’s ability to perform specific tasks. “Your health condition just means that you change your approach to the work that you do,” she explains.

Whether to disclose a disability is a highly personal decision. To help employers prepare for a disclosure discussion, Connelly suggests several helpful resources including those developed by the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion at Cornell University.

Misconception No. 2

Accommodations are expensive and complicated

While many disabled people are successful at work without any type of accommodation, managers are apprehensive about perceived costs. They often overestimate the outlay, Connelly says.

Studies show that employers typically spend less than $500 for things like a standing desk or an adaptive computer mouse and keyboard. Connelly’s paper suggests that, instead of expecting recruits to request all possible accommodations when hired, it may be more cost-effective in the long run to revisit and adjust accommodations at periodic intervals.

A guide dog walking with a person

Accommodations often cost nothing at all. Connelly notes that when employees do ask for an accommodation, “usually they’re looking for schedule flexibility or the ability to work from home.” Such requests are often similar to what an employee with no disability would ask for. 

Among the solutions to the accommodations issue: Move the discourse away from equating accommodations solely with disabilities. Make support for the diverse needs of all employees a core organizational value, regardless of disability status. 

Misconception No. 3

There are negative impacts on productivity and workplace culture

Managers mistakenly worry that co-worker attitudes towards disabled colleagues could hurt overall morale. For example, could employees without disabilities feel that disabled colleagues get special treatment or that their workloads will increase to compensate for lower productivity? These assumptions are often false, Connelly says, because disabled workers are typically above-average employees.

In a separate paper recently published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies (“Building the business case for hiring people with disabilities”), Connelly and co-author Sandra L. Fisher of the Münster University of Applied Sciences in Germany, show that employees with disabilities often provide higher net value to organizations. “We found that they were fantastic workers because their accommodation costs are actually low and, most importantly, these are very loyal employees who have low turnover rates,” Connelly explains.

Looking ahead, Connelly says the biggest challenge to having more people with disabilities in the workforce is to change the mindset of employers who assume that people with disabilities are this “other” group. But there is progress. The labour market remains tight and many companies and industries will face worker shortages for years to come. As a result, employers are broadening where, and how, they recruit. 

“Anecdotally, I have heard that many community service organizations that support finding employment for people with disabilities are busy and that there’s possibly more of a recognition that these workers are excellent and have a lot to contribute,” Connelly says.