The Employment Gap for People with Disabilities: A Brief Discussion of One Recent Study

I’m getting ready to speak at the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Conference in Montreal next week. I’ll be presenting a paper co-authored with Jennifer Stewart and  published in the Spring 2018 issue of Relations Industrielles.

Our paper makes a very simple point. Using a large survey of students who borrowed from the Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP), we show that postsecondary students with permanent disabilities are just as likely to graduate from college or university as students without disabilities.[1] That’s the good news. The bad news is that the data also indicate that students with disabilities are less likely to be employed after they leave school.

The data do not allow us to say much about why this might be true but one obvious possibility is that employers discriminate against people with disabilities. That said, a range of non-discriminatory factors may be at play: people with disabilities who want to work may face higher costs of working or may have to give up benefits based on their disability. These factors will raise the “reservation wage” — the lowest acceptable wage offer — for people with disabilities.

In this piece, I want to review an article published in the March 2018 issue of the ILR Review by Mason Ameri and his colleague that, in my opinion, clearly shows that discrimination is an important cause of the gap in job market performance of people with disabilities.[2]

Of course, the existence of “disability gaps” between those with and without disabilities is not a novel finding.  For example, Ameri, citing the work of others, writes that “[a]mong working-age people with disabilities in the United States, only 35% were employed in 2015, compared to 76% of working-age people without disabilities”.

However, to construct a convincing argument that discrimination plays a role in explaining the disability employment gap, researchers should “compare comparables”. That is, they should compare people who are similar in all respects except that some have disabilities and others do not. Professor Stewart and I try to do that (imperfectly) by focusing only on people who have borrowed to attend a college or university and using multivariate techniques to account for other observable differences among people.

One good way to test for discrimination is to conduct a field experiment in which researchers submit fictional job applications for actual jobs.[3] The applications are exactly the same except some reveal that the (fictional) applicants have a disability while others are written to come from applicants without disabilities. For a survey of field experiments used to investigate discrimination (not just discrimination based on disability) see Judith Rich’s survey of the field.

One of the challenges in studying “people with disabilities” is that the range of possible disabilities is enormous and the experiences of people with one sort of disability may be vastly different than the experience of people with another disability. Ameri addresses this challenge by choosing one sort of job — accounting jobs — and two specific disabilities — spinal cord injuries (SCI) and Asperger’s syndrome.[4] That kind of job and those two disabilities were chosen because there is little reason to believe that people with SCI or Asperger’s syndrome are any less productive in accounting jobs than people without disabilities. Indeed, Ameri argues that people with Asperger’s syndrome may have an advantage in doing accounting work.

Ameri submitted applications for 6,016 accounting positions in the United States that were posted on, a well-known job search site. The fictional applicants could either disclose no disability, an SCI, or Asperger’s syndrome. Moreover, half of the applications were written to come from experienced, well-qualified people while the other half were from newly-minted accountants. In sum, each fictional applicant was randomly assigned to be in one of three disability categories and to be either experienced or inexperienced.

Each application was accompanied by a cover letter and a CV. For those in the disability categories, the disability was revealed in the cover letter by explaining that the applicant was actively volunteering in a (fictional) group supporting people with SCI or with Asperger’s syndrome. All other aspects of the applications were identical.

If discrimination existed, it would be reflected in lower employer responsiveness to the applicants with SCI or Asperger’s syndrome. Ameri used two measures of employer responsiveness. One was “active employer interest”, defined to include asking for interviews, asking for more information or providing information about other job opportunities in the firm. The second, far more restrictive measure, was a callback for an interview.

Ameri’s major finding is that employers were less responsive to the fictional applications from people with SCI or Asperger’s syndrome. Overall, there was active employer interest in 6.58 percent of the application indicating no disability and in 4.87 percent of the applications indicating a disability of either type. This gap of 1.71 percentage points was statistically significant. Results were similar when SCI applications and Asperger’s syndrome applications were tabulated separately.

When Ameri looked at the percentage for whom the employer requested an interview, there was still a gap — 2.53 percent for those without a disability compared to 2.25 percent for those with a disability — but the difference was not statistically significant.

A second important result appeared when the results were broken into subgroups according to the number of the firm’s employees. The gap was largest among employers with the less than 15 employees. Such employers are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), suggesting that such legislation does make a difference.

Ameri points out that their results should not be blithely extrapolated to other kinds of jobs and other types of disabilities. Recall that they chose accounting jobs because many disabilities, both apparent and non-apparent, do not affect on-the-job productivity in such jobs. And they chose SCI and Asperger’s syndrome precisely because, they argue, those disabilities should not affect productivity.

Another potential issue with the study is the way that the fictional disabilities were disclosed. The cover letter explained that the applicants were volunteering in organizations promoting the interests of those with SCI or Asperger’s syndrome. If employers were hesitant about hiring people with disabilities because of potential legal difficulties should the hiring not work out — for example, employers might fear being sued for discrimination — hiring someone already involved with an advocacy organization would exacerbate those fears.

Nonetheless, the Ameri study indicates that discrimination plays a role in causing the gap in labour market success between those with and without disabilities.


[1] Thanks to the Canada Student Loans Program for making the survey data (and linked administrative data) available to us.

[2] From here on, I’ll refer to the Ameri et al. paper as “Ameri”. His co-authors were Lisa Schur, Meera Adya, F. Scott, Bentley, Patrick McKay and Douglas Schur.

[3] The particular type of field experiment used by Ameri is sometimes called a “correspondence experiment.”

[4] Ameri cites two previous field experiments that sent fictional applications to actual job postings. Both found that employers favored applications that did not disclose disability. The French study compared responses to applicants with and without paraplegia. The Belgian study compared responses to applications with and without disclosure of participation in a Flemish disability program.

About Saul Schwartz

Professor School of Public Policy and Administration Carleton University Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6 Canada
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