Rutgers researchers shed light on treatment of workers with disabilities


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Photo by Edwin Gano |

Well-qualified applicants with disabilities face more discrimination from employers than their counterparts with no disabilities, according to a study by Rutgers and Syracuse University.

The two universities recently paired up to complete a ground-breaking study on discrimination against workers with disabilities.

The study was the first of its kind, and more than 6,000 fake resumes and cover letters, many of which revealed disability status, were sent out to various accounting firms.

One-third of the resumes had a cover letter that identifies the applicant as having a spinal injury, one third identifies having Asperger's syndrome and the other third said nothing about a disability, said Lisa Schur, a chair of the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and member of the research team.

“We waited and counted up how many employers responded, and if it made a difference if the cover letter said if that person had a disability or not,” Schur said.

The results were shocking, said Mason Ameri, a doctoral candidate at the School of Management and Labor Relations and another research team member.

“What was more surprising and troubling to us was that the more experienced applicants with disabilities were 34 percent less likely to receive interest,” Ameri said.

There were applicants who had six years of great experience and were superstars in their companies, but never received a call back because of their disability, Schur said.

The study found discrimination was concentrated among the most experienced applicants, she said.

The resumes were sent to small, medium and large accounting firms to see how the size of the firm impacted the study, Ameri said.

“The medium and large size firms essentially committed to the Americans with Disabilities Act and on the flip side we see that the small firms basically are in some ways committing discrimination,” he said.

This data can teach something about the experience component that was manipulated by the researchers.

"How much is enough? Perhaps there will never be enough for someone with a disability when it comes to evaluating an employer," he said.

Meera Adya, director of research at the Syracuse University Burton Blatt Institute, teamed up with researchers from Rutgers.

“Based on past research, we anticipated we’d see discrimination, but we didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the effect,” she told Rutgers Today.

The researchers emphasize the fact that the discrimination against the experienced applicants was mostly seen by the small firms not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Schur said.

“It’s good news that the large companies comply with the law,” she said. “The bad news that it is not enough to get an education and have the qualifications if people with disabilities are still going to face discrimination.”

The researchers believe that the small firms do not have the knowledge of the federal mandate and are not familiar with state discrimination laws, Ameri said.

“Maybe they do not have a robust human resource department or proper legal system to be familiar with the policy or law or proper infrastructure,” he said. “It could also be that they are unaware, or the practical reason can be that they are small and may not be able to afford such accommodations.

The smaller companies do not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they do not know if there is a state law that would prohibit them from discrimination, Schur said.

“This study shows that the law is working to some extent, and we may also have to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act just to include some small-sized firms so that they can commit to potentially hiring people with disabilities,” Ameri said.

The study originally began at Syracuse and then reached Rutgers through Schur, who brought it to Ameri’s attention. The project got started three years later and is now recognized worldwide.

“Syracuse has an institute for disability research and they have done amazing research on disabilities, and we have partnered with them in the past,” Schur said.

The research study will be continued by having interviews with small firms and address the cognizant component that will address this phenomenon, she said.

“I think overall, what this study offers is that it’s peeling away at the phenomenon of disability and employment,” Ameri said. “It’s the fear of the unknown, a matter of stereotype or stigma, and if we can address that, that will help triangulate the data we have, along with data from future experiments.”


Alexandra DeMatos

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