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Study finds rampant discrimination against applicants that disclose disabilities

A new study shows what most lawyers who represent disabled employees already knew—discrimination against job applicants who disclose that they have disabilities is rampant. The researchers who conducted the study used the accounting industry and the disabilities of Asperger’s syndrome and spinal cord injuries in their experiment. They sent fictitious applications in response to over 6,000 advertised accounting positions. The applications for each position were the same except for cover letters that said some of the applicants had no disability, some had Asperger’s syndrome, and some had spinal cord injuries. The researchers found that employers expressed interest in the applicants with disabilities 26% less frequently than applicants without disabilities.

“I don’t think we were astounded by the fact that there were fewer expressions of interest” for people with disabilities, said one member of the research team. “But I don’t think we were expecting it to be as large.”

The researchers found that businesses with fewer than 15 employees were even less likely than larger employers to express interest in disabled applicants. This may be due to the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law that prohibits discrimination against disabled applicants, only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Thus, smaller employers have less fear of disability discrimination lawsuits. However, it is also possible that the difference between large and small employers is due to smaller employers’ concerns about the potential costs of providing reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, even if the ADA does not require them to do so. This may have motivated some of the smaller employers in places like Maine, which has a state disability discrimination law (the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA)) that covers all employers regardless of their size.  Whatever the motivation for these small employers, they are acting on the stereotypical assumption that accommodating a worker with a disability will be more of a drain on their business than a benefit.  These stereotypical assumptions often overstate the cost of reasonable accommodations and understate the positive contributions that disabled workers can provide to a business.

Both the MHRA and ADA contain protections for disabled job applicants that all workers with disabilities should know about. For example, prior to offering a job to an applicant, the MHRA and ADA do not permit employers to require job applicants to undergo medical examinations. Employers may also not ask applicants questions that are likely to elicit information about whether the applicant has a disability. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Maine Human Rights Commission have resources, see here and here for some examples, that can give you guidance on what an employer may and may not do during a hiring process.

Of course, for some people with disabilities, an employer can tell just by meeting them that they have disabilities. You can’t, for instance, easily hide the fact that you have to use a wheelchair when you go to a job interview. These disabled workers may be even more vulnerable to discrimination and, thus, have even more reason to know their rights.

If you have a disability and you believe that an employer has discriminated against you, call an experienced employment lawyer to learn more about your rights. The lawyers at the Maine Employee Rights Group have represented numerous Mainers who have experienced disability discrimination. Whether you need help convincing an employer to provide you with reasonable accommodations, or because your employer has refused to provide you with reasonable accommodations, or because an employer has otherwise discriminated against you, we may be able to help you.