Why You May Not Want to Disclose a Disability When Job Hunting

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Federal laws prohibit most employers from discriminating against people with disabilities, but a new study suggests that many still favor non-disabled workers when it comes to hiring.

Researchers at Syracuse University and Rutgers University sent out fake cover letters in response to more than 6,000 posted job openings for accountants. All applicants were equally well qualified, but some mentioned in their cover letters that they had a spinal cord injury, while others disclosed that they had Asperger’s Syndrome. A third group mentioned no disabilities.

Those who mentioned a disability were 26% less likely to hear back from an employer than the non-disabled applicants. Disabled applicants received a response to their application from 4.87% of employers, while non-disabled applicants heard back from 6.58% of employers.

Disabled job hunters with six or more years of experience and who had CPA credentials were at a particular disadvantage. Employers were 34% less likely to contact those candidates than similar people without a disability. The difference in call backs for disabled and non-disabled applicants was much less dramatic for recent college graduates. The researchers speculated that this may have been because hiring managers looked more closely at the cover letters of more experienced applicants.

Smaller companies were more likely to discriminate against the disabled than larger companies. That may be because businesses with fewer than 15 employees aren’t covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The type of disability didn’t seem to have much effect on an employer’s interest in a candidate, though. Companies discriminated against people with spinal cord injuries and Asperger’s at roughly the same rate.

Overall, disabled people are twice as likely as the non-disabled to be unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The study sheds some light on one of the factors that may be behind that gap.

“The overall pattern of findings is consistent with the idea that disability discrimination continues to impede employment prospects of people with disabilities,” the researchers noted. “[M]ore attention needs to be paid to employer behavior and the demand side of the labor market for people with disabilities.”

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In the study, the fake candidates were upfront about their disability, but in real life people could eliminate such information from their cover letter and resume. That wouldn’t necessarily protect them from discrimination or bias later in the hiring process, though. Those with visible disabilities may choose to address them head-on during an interview, but people with non-visible disabilities may be better off saying nothing, at least until later on in the hiring process.

“If [the medical disability] is not obvious, unless it is germane for the actual job, I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss it during an interview,” Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, told Monster.

The good news is that being subject to the ADA does appear to reduce employer discrimination against people with disabilities. Unfortunately, blatant hiring discrimination is not the only obstacle that makes it more difficult for disabled people to find work. They’re also less likely to have a bachelor’s degree, may have more trouble securing reliable transportation to get to and from a job, and may require a flexible work schedule that not all employers are able to provide.

Finding an employer who is willing to accommodate their needs proves so difficult that some disable people may turn to self-employment as a solution. Eleven percent of people with disabilities report working for themselves, compared to 6.5% of people who aren’t disabled, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“I actually think they are continuing a long tradition that other marginalized communities have started,” Mark Perriello, president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities, told the paper. “If no one will hire you, start a business for yourself. Don’t let barriers get in the way.”

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