A New Study Reveals How Employers Discriminate Against Disabled People


One of the more ingenious ways researchers have uncovered bias in hiring practices — biases employers themselves either aren’t aware of or aren’t going to cop to if asked directly — is by sending out a bunch of résumés and cover letters that are identical other than on one key variable. In the common version of this experiment, half are sent out with stereotypically white-sounding names, half with black-sounding ones. Depressingly, but not surprisingly, these studies have found that having a white name makes it more likely you’ll be called in for an interview, even when holding constant all the stuff that’s supposed to actually matter for a job applicant, like education and qualifications. Now, reports Noam Scheiber in the New York Times, researchers have expanded this sort of experiment to a new population: disabled people. The results are equally depressing.

As Scheiber explains, for the study, conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of researchers stuck to the same format as those earlier experiments, sending thousands of applications out for accounting jobs, varying just one key aspect of the cover letters:

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.

Overall, packets whose cover letters mentioned a disability were 26 percent less likely to garner follow-up contact from the hiring company. Depressingly, having more experience didn’t matter; those with six years experience were 34 percent less likely to be contacted (among the one-year-experience application packets, there wasn’t a statistically significant difference between those with and without disabilities). The cover letters mentioning Asperger’s and spinal-cord injuries suffered from about the same hit to their likelihood of follow-up contact, which, as Scheiber notes, points to a generalized bias against disabled people rather than a specific concern having to do with, for example, an employee with Asperger’s office manner.

The one bright side: The study provides evidence that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act is working, since the firms with 15 or more employees — that is, those covered by the law —were less likely to discriminate against applicants with disabilities.

Why Disabled People Are Less Likely to Get Hired