Why Don’t Employers Hire and Retain Workers with Disabilities?


Introduction Despite persistently low employment rates among working-age adults with disabilities, prior research on employer practices and attitudes toward workers with disabilities paints a generally rosy picture of successfully accommodated workers in a welcoming environment. Findings from previous studies might have been biased because of either employer self-selection or social desirability, yielding non-representative or artificially positive conclusions. Methods In this study, a novel approach was used to survey human resource professionals and supervisors working for employers known or reputed to be resistant to complying with the ADA’s employment provisions. Attendees of employer-requested ADA training sessions were asked to assess various possible reasons that employers in general might not hire, retain, or accommodate workers with disabilities and to rate strategies and policy changes that might make it more likely for employers to do so. Results As cited by respondents, the principal barriers to employing workers with disabilities are lack of awareness of disability and accommodation issues, concern over costs, and fear of legal liability. With regard to strategies employers might use to increase hiring and retention, respondents identified increased training and centralized disability and accommodation expertise and mechanisms. Public policy approaches preferred by respondents include no-cost external problem-solving, subsidized accommodations, tax breaks, and mediation in lieu of formal complaints or lawsuits. Conclusions Findings suggest straightforward approaches that employers might use to facilitate hiring and retention of workers with disabilities, as well as new public programs or policy changes that could increase labor force participation among working-age adults who have disabilities.

Keywords People with disabilities – Employment – Americans with Disabilities Act – Employer attitudes – Discrimination


Decisions made by employers are critical to improving employment rates among working-age adults with disabilities. During the more than two decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first proposed in the late 1980s, many researchers have surveyed employers about their attitudes toward hiring and retaining workers with disabilities and their experiences with accommodating such workers. The picture that has emerged is generally rather rosy, reflecting “a veneer of employer acceptance of workers with disabilities” [1]. Answers to general questions about workers with disabilities reflect particularly favorable attitudes. For example, two early studies of Fortune 500 corporations indicated favorable attitudes toward hiring people with intellectual and other significant disabilities, benefitting both the worker and the employer [2, 3], and positive views of the job performance of workers with disabilities generally [4]. More recently, human resource and other high-level managers responding to one survey indicated generally favorable attitudes toward workers with disabilities [5]; respondents to that and a second survey expressed a moderate level of commitment to hiring workers with disabilities [5, 6].

A similar picture emerges when employers are asked about their experiences with accommodating workers with disabilities. In a 1998–1999 survey of private businesses and Federal agencies, a majority of human resource professionals from both types of organizations reported that they had accommodated workers with disabilities in each of the following ways: made their facilities more accessible, created flexible human resources policies, restructured jobs, modified the work environment, provided written job instructions, provided transportation accommodations, and modified equipment [79]. Additional accommodations available from a majority of employers, according to a 2010 survey, include flexible work schedules, telecommuting, and ergonomic redesign of workstations [10].

Employers report that accommodations provided to workers with disabilities typically cost little or nothing [1115], but are generally effective [13] and “worth the investment” [6] in terms of retaining experienced workers and increasing productivity [12, 16], as well as improving organizational culture and climate [16]. In several general employer surveys, only a small minority cited concerns over the cost of accommodations as a reason for not hiring workers with disabilities [6, 7, 10, 11]. Another potential financial concern is fear of litigation under the ADA or other non-discrimination laws, but employers rarely cite this as a barrier to hiring workers with disabilities. In one study, 4% of employers cited fear of litigation as a principal barrier [11], and, in another, this concern appeared fairly low on the li
st of most-often cited barrier to hiring workers with disabilities [17].

Notwithstanding a few other studies revealing somewhat negative attitudes, especially those asking employers about more stigmatized types of disability [1820], most employer surveys appear to paint a picture of successfully accommodated workers in a more or less welcoming environment. If we were to accept such findings at face value, we would be left wondering why the employment situation for working-age adults with disabilities remains dismal a full two decades after the enactment of the ADA [21, 22]. Workers and job seekers with disabilities, for their part, often cite employer attitudes and workplace discrimination as barriers to acquiring or keeping a job (see, e.g., [2327]).

One explanation is that true employer attitudes and experiences are not being obtained from employer surveys, either because employers are not being completely honest or because only employers with positive attitudes and experiences are responding to the surveys. The former could be the result of social desirability bias [28], in which respondents essentially report what they think the interviewer wants to hear rather than expressing their true attitudes, which are socially unacceptable and may run counter to legal requirements [1, 2931]. The latter explanation, that employers with negative attitudes are not part of the survey samples, might come about because such employers either decline to participate or, in surveys whose sample is selected from businesses expressing interest in hiring or accommodating people with disabilities (e.g., [12, 15]), are not part of the sampling frame. Studies focusing on employers with a history of successful accommodation are unlikely to detect negative attitudes toward or unfavorable experiences with workers with disabilities.

The present study attempts to address both limitations. To reduce social desirability bias, we asked human resource professionals and managers why they thought other employers might not hire or retain people with disabilities. And to compensate for selection or non-response biases in other studies, we purposely sought employers known or reputed to be reluctant to complying with disability non-discrimination laws. Our results directly contradict many prior findings, and offer participants’ perspectives on strategies that could help improve hiring and retention of workers with disabilities.


We began with the hypothesis that our study would yield distinctly different results from prior studies if we were able to collect data from a set of “ADA-recalcitrant” employers—businesses and government entities known or reputed to be reluctant to hire and accommodate workers with disabilities. We identified such employers from among those who were referred to or otherwise known by the DBTAC–Pacific ADA Center, one of ten regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTAC) offering information and guidance on complying with the ADA and other disability laws to businesses, government entities, workers, and other consumers; the DBTAC maintains partnerships with local organizations throughout Federal Region IX, and these affiliates also identified candidate employers. Employers were considered ADA-recalcitrant if they had directly expressed resistance to complying with the ADA to DBTAC or affiliate staff; had established such a reputation among DBTAC staff, its local affiliates, or the disability community; or had been referred to the DBTAC because of an actual or threatened legal action or complaint against them or as part of a settlement of a lawsuit or complaint.

Early attempts to question a few such employers directly about their attitudes and experiences were not successful, with participants becoming defensive and answering disingenuously, according to the interviewers’ perceptions. Rethinking our strategy, we decided instead to use indirect or structured projective questioning, a technique suggested in the literature and found to be effective in reducing social desirability bias [3234]. Instead of asking about the participants’ own attitudes and experiences, we ask them to speculate as to the attitudes and behaviors of employers in general, not necessarily their own business or government entity. In a pilot test, this indirect method proved much more effective in engaging the participants to consider the reasons that employers might be reluctant to hire or retain workers with disabilities.

We developed a pair of paper-and-pencil questionnaires, the first on barriers to hiring and retaining workers with disabilities and the second on practical and policy strategies to improve hiring and retention. The first questionnaire contained two sets of statements asserting reasons that employers might be reluctant to hire (for the first set) or retain (for the second set) workers with disabilities, with each set beginning with the instruction, “Thinking about employers in general, and not necessarily the organization you work for, please give us your opinion about the following statements.” The statements were prefaced by the question, “Why don’t some employers hire people with disabilities?” or “…retain workers with disabilities?”

The statements that followed were of the form, “Some employers don’t hire people with disabilities because…” followed by a reason and response choices of “Strongly agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly disagree,” along with “Don’t know.” The section on reasons for not hiring people with disabilities contained 14 statements, beginning with the most innocuous (“…they rarely see people with disabilities applying for jobs”) and ending with the least innocuous (“…they discriminate against job applicants with disabilities”). Similarly, the section on reasons for not retaining workers with disabilities presented 12 statements, e.g., “…they believe that workers with disab
ilities can no longer do the basic functions of their jobs.”

These statements were developed by the project team based on our review of the literature, our own prior research, and the experienced garnered through frequent interactions with employers on ADA and other disability non-discrimination issues; they were then refined and augmented after a pilot test. Following each list of statements, space was provided for respondents to add additional reasons and offer comments.

The second questionnaire, which asked respondents to rate the helpfulness of suggested practical or policy strategies in improving hiring and retention of people with disabilities, followed a similar format. Following another instruction to think “of employers in general, and not necessarily the organization you work for,” statements were of the form, “Employers would be more likely to hire and retain workers with disabilities if they had…” or “if there were….” Eight statements focused on practical approaches, such as “a written company policy of non-discrimination that includes disability,” and another eight on policy strategies, such as “tax breaks for hiring and retaining workers with disabilities.” Response categories were “Very helpful,” “Helpful,” “Not very helpful,” and “Not helpful at all,” plus “Don’t know.” Again, space was provided for additional strategies and comments.

Questionnaires were distributed to human resources professionals and managers working at ADA-recalcitrant organizations who attended ADA or other disability-related trainings provided by DBTAC—Pacific ADA Center and its affiliates. An introduction to the first questionnaire, required for human subjects approval, emphasized the voluntary nature of the survey and its confidentiality. Some 463 respondents, each attending one of 38 trainings, completed and returned questionnaires. Few attendees refused to participate entirely, although many declined to provide a response to one or more statements. To maximize anonymity, no information about the individual or the employer was collected on the questionnaires or provided to the researchers.

Item non-response (includes missing, ambiguous, or otherwise invalid) averaged about 3% for the first questionnaire and 2% for the second; “don’t know” averaged about 8% for the first questionnaire and 5% for the second. Both missing and “don’t know” responses have been excluded from the analysis; i.e., the percentages reported are of known responses.


Reasons for Not Hiring or Retaining Workers with Disabilities