Disability Discrimination: A Field Study

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.8 percent of all Americans had a disability in 2016. This proportion is about 6 percent higher than that reported in 2008. Thus, persons with disabilities represent a sizeable portion of the population.

Researchers have increasingly examined the workplace experiences and opportunities for persons with disabilities. The exploration is spurred in large part by data from the US Census Bureau showing that 18.7 percent of all persons with a disability were employed. This figure is 3.5 times less than the percentage of employed people without a disability.

Field experiments from around the world shed light on why these disparate numbers exist. Jean-Francios Ravaud and his colleagues conducted a study in France. They mailed job applications to over 2,000 employers, and the applications varied by whether the applicant had a disability and the individual’s qualifications. They found that persons without a disability were 1.78 times more likely to receive a favorable response from the employer than were applicants with a disability.

Stijn Baert (2016) observed a similar pattern in Belgium, using the same methods. In that context, persons with a disability were 47 percent less likely to receive a positive response from the employer.

Finally, Mason Ameri, of Rutgers Univesity, and his colleagues found  discriminatory decision making among American employers, where persons with a disability received 26 percent fewer expressions of interest than did their counterparts without a disability. Small, private companies—those exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act—were especially likely to shun the applicants with a disability. 

Collectively, the results show that people with disabilities face barriers in the selection process, even when equally qualified. The discrimination is more likely to occur when federal employment laws do not govern the decisions.