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Employers Don't Understand the Work People with Disabilities Can Do, SHRM Research Finds

A man is speaking on stage at an event.
​A sign language interpreter at the SHRM 2019 Inclusion event in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS—Many HR professionals and managers think certain kinds of work can't be performed by someone with a disability, and that prevents people in this talent pool from being recruited, hired or promoted, according to research released today from the SHRM Foundation and Workplace Initiative by Understood.

In the last seven years, employers have not changed their recruitment methods to attract and hire talented job candidates who have disabilities,  Employing Abilities @Work shows, yet the nation's employers continue to have trouble filling 7.2 million jobs.

"It seems that many organizations have been on autopilot when it comes to disability recruitment," and that needs to change, said Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) chief knowledge officer. Only about 25 percent of organizations have explicit goals for recruiting and hiring people with disabilities, he noted.

There's also a lack of training in this area. Only about one-third of organizations offer disability-awareness or sensitivity training to all managers and supervisors. Among people managers and HR professionals, 61 percent and 51 percent, respectively, have not participated in any disability-inclusion training, the Foundation found.

The Foundation conducted the research in partnership with the Workplace Initiative and SHRM between June and August. Nearly 100 SHRM members participated in focus groups, and two surveys were fielded—one with 1,658 SHRM members working in HR and another with 1,168 employees and 748 managers.

Need for a Culture Shift

Employers' reluctance to recruit and hire people with disabilities may be due in part to how "disability" is perceived.

"There needs to be a culture shift when only about one-third of organizations offer disability-awareness or sensitivity training to all managers and supervisors," Alonso said.

Managers surveyed tended to define a disability as something that limits a major life function and requires an accommodation. But looks can be deceiving: Some people who appear hale and hearty may have an undiscernible disability. Ten percent of Americans have a medical condition that could be considered an invisible disability, including asthma, chronic migraines or depression.

Managers are uncomfortable discussing disabilities for fear of doing or saying something unlawful. The research found that:

  • 32 percent of managers said they were somewhat or very uncomfortable working with a colleague with a mental-health disability.
  • 26 percent of managers said they were somewhat or very uncomfortable working with a colleague with an intellectual disability.
  • 13 percent of managers said they were somewhat or very uncomfortable working with a colleague with a physical disability.

But nearly all managers (92 percent) who are aware that one or more of their employees have a disability said those individuals perform the same as or better than their peers who don't have disabilities. HR managers responded similarly (97 percent).

Some organizations are making a concerted effort to recruit and hire people with disabilities and to reach out to customers with disabilities. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Persons with Cognitive Disabilities]

Examples run the gamut from large to small: JPMorgan Chase launched Autism at Work in July 2015 with four employees; the program now has 85 people in 20-plus roles representing 10 lines of business in six countries. In Hilliard, Ohio, the manager of AT&T's DirecTV warehouse hired a man who is deaf because he was the best person for the job.

Starbucks started an initiative of hiring staffers fluent in American Sign Language at the deaf-friendly store it opened last October in Washington, D.C. Deaf employees wear a special apron embroidered with ASL symbols, and hearing employees wear a pin that identifies them as proficient in ASL, NPR reported.

"There is an opportunity to educate and promote inclusivity, not just via formal training but through other capacity-building methods," Alonso said. "HR professionals should lead the charge in better educating their managers and employees about compliance matters related to disability and disability inclusion. HR also needs to create spaces within the organization where managers and employees can learn informally and build capacity around creating inclusive workplaces."

The SHRM Foundation will launch a certificate program in January 2020 to help increase employers' knowledge and skills to hire, develop and retain individuals with disabilities.


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