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The Invisible Barrier to Disability Employment

Author: Jon Breen

This paper was first presented at an international conference in Yerevan, Armenia on October 21, 2016. The conference was organized by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, in partnership with UNDP Armenia, UNICEF Armenia, and the USAID-funded Armenia Pension Reform Implementation Programme. The Armenian government organized this conference as a means to learn from the experiences of local and international practitioners, academics, and others, as it transitions its disability determination system from within a medical model to that of a biopsychosocial model. Speakers from several countries shared their perspectives, challenges and achievements within the framework of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) and on its implications for program and policy development.

As the title of my presentation suggests, I will consider three specific topics within the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). These are disability, employment, and attitude. As most of us here are aware, the ICF is based on what is called a biopsychosocial model of disability. For my purposes today, this model can be understood as the coming together of activity and social participation challenges within a particular social context. This latter category of social context is subdivided into personal factors and environmental factors.

Of these two subdivisions, only environmental factors are actually considered by the ICF. Although the ICF recognizes that personal factors also impact disabled people, they are considered as being too culturally and socially determined to be included in the ICF analysis. These personal factors include gender, race, age, fitness, education, coping styles, etc. Although this is a contested point by some, we will leave it for the present. I raise it to alert you to these additional factors which cannot help but be of influence on the success of people with disabilities. And for the statisticians in the audience, it is difficult to ignore how this omission may be introducing additional error into any subsequent calculations when determining disability status.

I should also add a brief aside here regarding my use of terminology related to disability. As those of you who follow the current debates over disability theory will know, the language associated with disability is a very contested topic. Those who follow the strict social model of disability argue that the appropriate terminology is disabled people. In this way, they suggest, the negative effect of environmental influences is highlighted. Others, who see disability from a more minority rights perspective, argue that person with a disability is more appropriate in that disability is seen as an attribute of the person, rather than being a central focus. This is often referred to as people-first language. My own preference is actually to abandon the notion of disability, with its now unavoidably negative connotations, and refer to differences rather than disability. However, for today’s purposes, I will use disabled people and people with disabilities interchangeably.

To return to these environmental factors, they are further divided within the ICF into three categories, those of the physical, social and attitudinal world. However, I will address only one. So, to review, we have gone from the broad category of social context to the specific subdivision of environmental factors to a further subcategory of attitudinal factors. Within the very broad scope of the ICF, this very narrow aspect of attitudinal factors, which is just a part of a part of a part, may seem somewhat inconsequential.

Again, just for clarification purposes, the ICF appears to inadvertently overlap notions of social and attitudinal factors. For example, it refers to “stigma and discrimination” as being part of the social environment. I would suggest that the social environment should be limited to social structures. Notions of “stigma and discrimination” are more properly categorized within the context of attitudes. The important difference is that structures tend to be considered as fixed and immutable, whereas attitudes may be subject to revision. But this is a small point.

I have selected this topic of attitude for my presentation because, in my experience, it is an absolutely necessary contributor to the success for disabled people. Without appropriate consideration and remediation, negative attitudes can destroy whatever good work is carried out by and for people with disabilities. By saying this, I do not mean to imply that it is the only factor necessary for success. It is not sufficient by itself but, without it, success becomes much more elusive. As you will all be aware, those with disabilities often face, and are required to overcome, a variety of extremely difficult challenges. Negative attitudes toward disability on the part of others can frustrate all of those other efforts. And I use the term “attitudes toward disability” very purposefully. My experience is that negative attitudes such as I am describing are rarely directed toward an individual or individuals. More often than not, these attitudes are based on the concept of disability itself. But I will return to this point near the end of this presentation.

To put the issue of attitude into a practical context, I will consider the attitudes of others as they are associated with the employment efforts made by disabled people. In this context, I suggest that is the attitudes of others towards people with disabilities which will ultimately determine whether these efforts lead to success.

I have purposefully chosen to illustrate this relationship between attitudes and success within the context of employment. And I have done so for two reasons. First, meaningful employment provides income, status, social engagement, and a feeling of self-reliance, each of which contributes significantly to enhanced social inclusion and the overall quality of life of those living with disabilities. Second, getting and keeping employment continues to be commonly recognized as one of the most significant challenges facing disabled people. As most of us are aware, employment rates for people with disabilities have remained very low, and essentially unchanged, for the past 35 years.

Research from a wide variety of academic, business, and disability-informed sources indicates that the attitudes of others are a significant barrier to the employment success of those with disabilities. And, if I may add, it may come as a surprise to learn that this same research indicates that negative attitudes toward those with disabilities within the context of employment does not necessarily correspond to overall attitudes toward disabled people. In other words, many employers, who may have generally positive attitudes toward people with disabilities, may still not wish to hire them. For the remainder of my presentation, I will consider some of the principal causes of these employment-related attitudes and summarize several strategies that have proven to have some success in meeting this challenge.

There is a very broad range of causes put forward as explanations for why people with disabilities are most frequently not well accepted within the workplace. I have summarized these into three groups and will give you an example of each and how we have attempted to address them. One frequently hears of concerns over the low number of job applicants with disabilities, over a general lack of skills, and over the high costs associated with providing supports. These latter are typically referred to in Canada and the United States as job accommodations but you may be more familiar with the term of workplace adjustments.

Before I share my examples with you, please note that I am aware that solutions that we may have developed in Canada are not necessarily directly applicable as solutions to your circumstances here in Armenia. However, I believe that the processes by which we arrived at some of these may be useful. In addition, please note that I do not wish to convey the notion that we have solved all of these challenges in Canada. We have made some inroads and that is what I would like to share.

Two of the projects that I will summarize took place while I was the first Manager of Disability Employment Services with the Yukon government in Canada. The first was directly related to what was perceived as a very low response from individuals with disabilities to job postings. This perception was supported by internal surveys and questionnaires which indicated that there were very few disabled people working for government. As you will appreciate, the feeling had developed that there were few people with disabilities who wanted to work for, or who were currently employed by, government. This became a rationale for not making increased efforts to encourage employees to identify as being disabled or to apply for jobs. However, over the course of almost two years, our office examined many of the internal structures and processes that had been assumed to be welcoming and sincere. We also began to interview groups of disabled people to find out about their perceptions of this large employer. We heard two things. 

First, the employer was putting forward materials associated with hiring that inadvertently discouraged many with disabilities from applying. For example, many job postings indicated that a driver’s licence was necessary, even though most jobs do not require this certification. No one actually knew why it was included in many advertisements. It appeared that it was merely a leftover from previous times. We removed it from all future advertisements except where actually necessary. 

Second, many disabled employees did not believe that the employer was sincere about providing necessary accommodations to current employees even if these were of incidental cost or difficulty. Therefore, these employees felt that, by identifying as people with disabilities, they would risk exposing themselves to possible discrimination with no chance of benefit. For these reasons, very few employees had been willing to disclose a disability. Our solution began by reviewing internal and external census data. We discovered that one of the most common disabilities within the Canadian workforce is that of individuals who are hard of hearing. (I differentiate these people from those who are Deaf). Our research determined that one of the most common challenges for this group of hard-of-hearing individuals was talking on the telephone. Although many telephones now have volume controls, we were advised that turning up the volume often added to the distortion and did not solve the problem. To meet this challenge, were able to find a very inexpensive electronic device designed specifically to meet this concern. With that information in hand, our office sent out an email to everyone in our government, advising that these devices were available at no cost to anyone who required one. Not only did we solve this problem for over 100 employees, we were able to demonstrate to the whole workforce of 5,000 people that we were making real efforts to accommodate and support our disabled employees. This, and a number of similar efforts, allowed our government, over the next three years, to increase its declared representation rate of employees with disabilities to be the best in any Canadian jurisdiction.

A second example, one related to skills, occurred when we began to develop a strategy to hire more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Again, there may be differences of language between North America and elsewhere. You may be more familiar with the terms learning disabilities or learning difficulties. In any event, our office managed a program that involved the secure destruction of outdated confidential documents and other materials that could not be disposed of through usual means such as sending them off for recycling. In essence, we were administering an industrial paper shredding operation. Now here is the interesting part. Although I am unfamiliar with your government hiring processes, ours required that job interviews be exactly the same for all applicants. We asked the same questions, we provided the same environment for interviews, etc. However, our work to encourage applicants with a broad range of disabilities was proving to be somewhat effective. For one position, we had an applicant who was mute and could not write. So, as you will imagine, those within the hiring process were at a loss as to how to go about ensuring that everything would be the same for everyone. You also need to know that neither speech nor writing ability were necessary for performing this particular job. The first response from some was that this could not be done. How could it be fair if some candidates were interviewed and others were not? The solution that we developed was to examine the questions that were typically asked of candidates and devise a comparable demonstration activity that this candidate could be asked to perform. So, some applicants would describe how they may do certain tasks and another demonstrated the same skill. The applicant whom I mentioned above won the competition and got the job. He still has it, eight years later.

My final example is regarding a common sentiment that disabled people generally do not have the skills necessary to perform most jobs. I would like to suggest that this is frequently a function of a lack of appropriate accommodations rather than a skills deficit. Here is my example. In the early 1980s, before I began working in this field, I owned and managed a healthcare manufacturing company that produced a variety of products, including canes for blind people, other kinds of support canes, and bathroom safety accessories. Many of our products required several stages of production, including the assembly of various component groups. Early on during my ownership of that company, I had decided that I would only hire disabled people. One of my employees, several years before I hired him, had been in a motor vehicle accident and sustained quite a severe head injury. He was left with virtually no short-term memory and had significant difficulty learning new tasks. I hired him to assemble product components. However, if he stopped performing a task for a lunch or coffee break, he could not recall how to do it when he returned to his workbench. Our solution, suggested by my production foreman, was to have another staff member accompany him back to his work station after each break and demonstrate the task. This solved the problem. The point to consider here is that a lack of opportunity is often incorrectly viewed as a lack of ability. But I chose this example for two reasons. First, it is apparent that this person would typically have had a very difficult time in finding an employment opportunity where he could demonstrate what he could do. Second, it raises the topic of workplace accommodations. And I would like to leave you with a bit more information on this topic.

As I said earlier, employers often indicate that they are very concerned about costs associated with accommodations. However, I would submit that the real problem is not the cost of accommodations. Research in North America indicates that the average cost of accommodation is relatively minimal and that at least 50 percent of all employed people with disabilities do not require any accommodations at all. The real challenge for employers is not knowing what to do. Questions such as “What is needed? How do I know? Where do I get it? How do I discuss this with an employee?” are very common. These are all fair questions. However, in my experience, employers who do not believe that they have the professional resources available to answer these questions are much less willing to employ people with disabilities.

I would also like to return briefly to a point that I raised earlier. That was the manner in which negative attitudes often turn out to be directed toward disability in a general sense, rather than toward individuals. Most frequently based on a lack of information, or even more damaging, on perceptions based on anxiety concerning those who are different, these attitudes can easily become accepted as the norm. And, unfortunately, those with disabilities are left to prove their value in an environment of fear or confusion.

To close, I encourage those of you who have either direct or indirect involvement with the employment of disabled people to keep in mind the effect that attitude can have. When hiring. When providing accommodations. When considering what individuals with disabilities are actually able to do, whether they require supports or not. And, finally, when accepted as people who may have differences, but who are still entitled to respect, inclusion, and the opportunity to participate fully in society.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Disability and Employment - The Invisible Barrier of Attitude © Jon Breen 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.