Are Employers a Barrier to Employment?

It’s very common for those of us working in HR, Recruitment, Career Development, or Policy Development to use the phrase ‘barriers to employment’ in our work. I’ve used the term thousands of times – it catches all of the considerations that make it more difficult for a person to access employment opportunities and earn a livelihood. As I get older, however, and more conscious of the relationships between systems, language and behaviour, the term has been nagging at me. While reading a couple of recent studies highlighting employer and HR perspectives on recruiting workers from an ‘underrepresented group’ I noticed some important patterns in the language being used.

In these studies, the top barriers to hiring people from this group were reported by HR professionals and employers as:

(1)  believing people from this demographic group are not productive,

(2)  perceived lack of skills/competencies,

(3)  expectation of significant accommodation costs,

(4)  concern about ‘fit’ with physical environment, location, and safety,

(5)  concern that psychological or physical demands would be too high

(6)  stigma and bias

These perceived ‘barriers’ purportedly keep companies from designing recruitment strategies for this very large demographic group. That the report is about job seekers with disabilities is a fact that should have zero bearing on perspectives that seem to justify exclusion. The first 5 ‘barriers’ identified by employers and HR professionals are all reflective of stigma and bias. These are social and attitudinal barriers that demonstrate a very limited understanding of disability and its hundreds of different manifestations.

In the spirit of keeping our workforce populated and sustainable, maybe it’s time to start calling  ‘barriers’ to the employment of people with disabilities exactly what many of them are – namely, discrimination and ableism. I don’t say this to judge those performing recruitment duties, but in the hope that more accurate language leads us to action.  

I’ve developed and overseen employment services for job seekers with disabilities for 25 years, and have witnessed recruitment and retention success rates that rival any other demographic groups. It’s not clear exactly what recruiters imagine when they hear the word ‘disability’ but it would appear to be far more limiting than a job seeker’s diagnosis. Disability includes a very diverse range of conditions which, combined with social bias and accessibility issues, ‘dis-able’ people from accessing opportunities equitably.

The DSM-5, (essentially the encyclopedia of mental disorders), contains almost 300 mental illnesses and 20 disorder chapters – and it doesn’t even touch on physical, sensory and medical disabilities. What a great many recruiters do not seem to understand is that there are a lot of very different ways disability can affect people – and even more ways that disability doesn’t affect them.

One of my friends with a mild intellectual disability is an avid mountain biker and skier and bench presses over 200 pounds, another with an anxiety disorder is driven to perfection in her work and consistently does more than asked, another gentleman (on the autism spectrum) was so obsessed with safety in a warehouse environment that he was made the ‘safety trainer for that workplace. I know multiple successful paraplegic or quadriplegic entrepreneurs who started their own companies, at least in part, because social and attitudinal ‘barriers to employment’ limited their access to jobs.

We all have things we are very good at – and we all have things we can’t do (yet) at all. How do we continue to justify the exclusion of a specific demographic of job seekers for the exact same reason?  How can any of us legitimately decide, without having interviewed them, that the entire 27% of our working-age population who identify as having a disability, deserve any of the preconceived notions identified in the studies cited earlier?

Just as importantly, with up to 25% of Canada’s workforce ‘aging out’ by 2035, and a critical need for sustainable workforce strategies at every organization in the country, how can any of our employers pass over this diverse and talented group? If your organization needs training or information about how to recruit and retain workers with disabilities, including general disability awareness, sourcing workers, and designing  accommodations, contact RealEyes Capacity

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