The Disability Employment Puzzle: A Field Experiment on Employer Hiring Behavior
72 Pages Posted: 21 Sep 2015 Last revised: 31 May 2023
Date Written: September 2015
People with disabilities have low employment and wage levels, and some studies suggest employer discrimination is a contributing factor. Following the method of Bertrand and Mullainathan (2003), new evidence is presented from a field experiment that sent applications in response to 6,016 advertised accounting positions from well-qualified fictional applicants, with one-third of cover letters disclosing that the applicant has a spinal cord injury, one-third disclosing the presence of Asperger’s Syndrome, and one-third not mentioning disability. These specific disabilities were chosen because they would not be expected to limit productivity in accounting, helping rule out productivity-based explanations for any differences in employer responses. Half of the resumes portrayed a novice accountant, and half portrayed an experienced one. The fictional applicants with disabilities received 26% fewer expressions of employer interest than those without disabilities, with little difference between the two types of disability. The disability gap was concentrated among more experienced applicants, and among private companies with fewer than 15 employees that are not covered by the ADA, although comparable state statutes cover about half of them. Comparisons above and below disability law coverage thresholds point to a possible positive effect of the ADA on employer responses to applicants with disabilities, but no clear effects of state laws. The overall pattern of findings is consistent with the idea that disability discrimination continues to impede employment prospects of people with disabilities, and more attention needs to be paid to employer behavior and the demand side of the labor market for people with disabilities.
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