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Why is job opportunity still lagging for people with disabilities?

March 16, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
The unemployment rate for people with a disability is more than double than for those without. Even though the law bars such discrimination, it can be difficult for these Americans to get hired. But that’s not the full story: Some employers are seeing how the special abilities of workers on the autism spectrum can boost their bottom lines. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We often hear about and cover the struggles that many Americans face when they try to land a good job.

If you have a disability, the challenge to getting hired or even getting a response to an inquiry, much less a face-to-face interview, is significantly harder.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, explores why that’s still happening.

It’s part of his weekly series, Making Sense.

AMI PROFETA, Job Seeker (through computer): Good evening. My name is Ami Profeta.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ami Profeta has cerebral palsy. He’s been looking for work for over a year.

AMI PROFETA (through computer): People have hung up the phone. They don’t respond to my e-mails.

PAUL SOLMAN: Profeta’s job hunt may be more challenging than most. The unemployment rate for those with a disability is more than double the rate for those without.

We interviewed economist Douglas Kruse, himself a paraplegic, via Skype.

DOUGLAS KRUSE, Rutgers University: It’s not just a matter of people with disabilities, you know, staying at home and collecting disability income. It’s a matter of people who want to work are not as easily able to find work.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a 2015 study, Kruse’s research team submitted 6,000 fake online job applications for accounting positions. One-third said the applicant had a spinal cord injury, another third Asperger’s syndrome. And one-third didn’t mention a disability at all. The results?

DOUGLAS KRUSE: People with disabilities were 26 percent less likely to get expressions of employer interest.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s going on, do you suppose?

DOUGLAS KRUSE: There’s a lot of discomfort with people with disabilities. I think, apart from that, there’s a lot of uncertainty: Oh, geez, someone with a spinal cord injury, I’m not sure they’re going to fit in here.

MASON AMERI, Rutgers University: They refer to it as fear of the unknown.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mason Ameri co-authored the study.

MASON AMERI: How do I know if this person can do the job? How do I know the cost? So, all of these unknowns ultimately compel an employer to express no hiring intent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even though the Americans With Disabilities Act bars such discrimination for firms with more than 15 employees.

Nicole Ellis returned to the job market after the bank she worked at went bust. But she decided to leave off her resume the fact that she is legally blind due to ocular albinism.

NICOLE ELLIS: I didn’t think that I would be able to get my foot in the door.

PAUL SOLMAN: It still took three-and-a-half years to land a job here at Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia nonprofit which promotes independent living for the disabled.

NICOLE ELLIS: I would get the calls back. I would go on the interviews. And once you start discussing — because I have to let them know that I’m going to need these accommodations, like software that enlarges fonts or enhances speech recognition.

So, once you start talking about those things, it kind of becomes like dead silence, almost. And they…

PAUL SOLMAN: Really? You can feel it?

NICOLE ELLIS: You can feel it. And then they will give you some other scenarios as far as, well, what about, let’s say, if it snows? Are you going to be able to get into work?

PAUL SOLMAN: But you can understand, or can you not understand why an employer would be concerned about all those sorts of things?

NICOLE ELLIS: I do understand, but, on the other hand, I have worked around people who do not have disabilities who do not come to work and who do not work.

(LAUGHTER)

NICOLE ELLIS: So, I mean, to me, I understand the doubt and the questions, but you are discriminating just based on the what-ifs of someone’s disability.

PAUL SOLMAN: Liam Dougherty has a master’s in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and ataxia, a condition marked by a lack of muscle coordination.

LIAM DOUGHERTY: The way that disability affects — affects employment is more insidious, more subtle, more insidious. My resume has all these gaps in there. And so I think an employer looks at that, and they see, you know, like why has this guy not been working?

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the gaps in your work history, and the kinds of work you haven’t done, are kind of signals, you think?

LIAM DOUGHERTY: Definitely.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dougherty, like Ellis, also found work here at Liberty.

Bill Krebs says employers have always underestimated him because of his intellectual disability.

BILL KREBS: At one time, it was the R-word. We got rid of the R-word. It means mentally retarded. So, I was labeled with a mental retardation.

My I.Q. is mild, so I was I.Q. of 70. When you’re labeled with a disability, it’s like Hitler did to the Jews. They put a tattoo on your arm, and that stigma stays with you the rest of your life.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, once you’re stigmatized, then?

BILL KREBS: That’s it.

PAUL SOLMAN: You’re out of the game?

BILL KREBS: You’re out of the game, no matter how hard you try.

PAUL SOLMAN: Until he too found a niche at Liberty, where disability is a commonplace.

But what prompted this story is a second and more surprising finding of the Kruse-Ameri research: Early results show that when they sent applications just for jobs in data entry and software development…

MASON AMERI: We found no evidence of discrimination.

PAUL SOLMAN: None?

MASON AMERI: None, at least not with the preliminary data.

PAUL SOLMAN: And why might that be? We went looking for a case study in the real world, and found one in Philadelphia at an accounting firm.

STEVE HOWE, Americas Managing Partner, EY: We make a concerted effort now. We’re going to universities speaking to the people responsible for their students with disabilities.

PAUL SOLMAN: Steve Howe is managing partner for EY Americas, formerly Ernst & Young.

In a pilot program, it’s pushing to hire more people with autism, a group that has had, up until now, an estimated un- and under-employment rate of between 70 and 90 percent.

But, says Sam Briefer:

SAM BRIEFER, Account Support Associate, EY: We all bring something to the table that a lot of people cannot. We are very detail-oriented. We analyze things in a very specific way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Briefer is one of four recent hires here with autism spectrum disorder.

SAM BRIEFER: There are others that are very more detail-oriented than — than I am and are much better with numbers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, it’s an accounting firm. I guess being good with numbers is probably a good thing.

SAM BRIEFER: It is. It is. So, it puts us all at a huge advantage.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, of course, people on the spectrum typically have trouble socializing, communicating, an obvious handicap.

Were you nervous about taking the job?

SAM BRIEFER: I was, yes. I first thought that I would be communicating with a lot of people at once, which is something that I always get stressed about. But knowing that I’m — I work independently a lot makes me feel a lot better with where I work.

PAUL SOLMAN: When things do get stressful, EY brings in a job coach to help.

The team’s regular manager, Jamell Mitchell, got neurodiversity training ahead of time, but he’s also learning on the job.

JAMELL MITCHELL, Associate Director, EY: They’re very specific and very clear.

As opposed to possibly a neurotypical person that may try to slide in at 9:10, the folks that are on the spectrum will say, hey, I arrived at 9:02 today. Do I need to work until 6:02?

PAUL SOLMAN: And your reaction to that?

JAMELL MITCHELL: Don’t worry about the two minutes. We’re OK.

(LAUGHTER)

STAN HWANG, Account Support Associate, EY: A lot of people on the spectrum tend to be, or at least initially, more — more rigid in their — in some of their thinking.

PAUL SOLMAN: But says program participant Stan Hwang, this form of rigidity has a major upside.

STAN HWANG: It also tends to make them want to be more honest, I think. What would be the point of, like, lying about something or being deceptive?

PAUL SOLMAN: Because you’re more naturally just straightforward?

STAN HWANG: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Managing partner Howe recently gave the team behind the pilot program a Better Begins With You Award.

MAN: Well, thank you very much.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, look, this isn’t about feel-good inclusivity, so much as boosting the bottom line.

Howe hopes to leverage the special abilities he’s seen in his workers with autism.

STEVE HOWE: We have learned from technology companies like SAP, Microsoft, HP, who have hired people with these kind of skills. We think it’s a rich talent pool, and we’re going to expand this now from this exercise in Philadelphia to three or four other cities in the next year, and scale this up.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that means more job prospects for people on the spectrum like Stan Hwang.

STAN HWANG: No matter what kind of functionality a person may be, everyone wants to be treated like a human being, and everybody deserves an opportunity.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, at long last, in certain jobs, they’re getting one. But for those with disabilities who don’t seem to provide a profit advantage, many still seem to be on their own.

AMI PROFETA (through computer): Employers do not respond.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman reporting from Philadelphia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A wonderful report.

And one more note: Paul’s team reached out to several major groups representing employers, large and small, to hear their take. Some didn’t respond. Others said that they will start to consider ways of tackling this problem.

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