New Research — Disability and the Workplace

loni-earnA recent State of the Science conference in Washington, DC, highlighted new findings in the area of disability and employment. The event, presented by the Employer Practices Rehabilitation Research Training Center (EPRRTC), offered initial findings that could help inform the way employers approach employees with disabilities.

The following research may have immediate applications:


This issue is multifaceted and is gaining more importance with the publication of new Section 503 regulations from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Although the research shows a persistent reluctance among employees to disclose a non-visible disability, employers have become increasingly motivated to encourage it. While creating an environment where employees feel comfortable making such a disclosure, it’s also important to educate and train frontline supervisors on how to deal with any information they may receive.

Cornell discovered that employees they surveyed in both the public and private sector were at least 60 percent more likely to disclose a disability to their direct supervisor than to Human Resources. This fact underscores the need for regular training for anyone with a supervisory responsibility on Title I of the ADA, as well as educating them on internal policies and procedures.


Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Fair Employer Practices Agencies, enabled researchers to look for trends that illuminate gaps in effective employer practices as they relate to employees with disabilities. For example, 23 percent of all ADA charges filed cited workplace retaliation, a number that has doubled since 2006. This significant increase may indicate that employers need to focus more on policies and practices related to termination of employees with disabilities. Cornell researchers have been granted an exceptional level of access to data, resulting in a database that employers can explore and use to potentially advance diversity and inclusion priorities.


The compensation gap between men and women, and the compensation disparities between people representing various minority groups, have been the subject of intense analysis for decades. Most employers carefully track pay equity among disparate groups, but few consider disability as a diversity characteristic that may result in a pay gap. However, when eliminating other factors such as race, gender, level of education, experience and marital status, researchers have discovered that for every $1 earned by a white male without a disability, a white male with a disability earns 90.7 cents. By isolating a population of similarly educated and experienced individuals, researchers feel confident that the compensation differences were likely attributable to disability status alone. The finding may indicate that people with disabilities are offered less access to promotional and professional development opportunities within their organizations, or that there could be a subtle bias at work regarding the contributions of people with disabilities. Although the research continues, employers who begin to track compensation using disability as an employee characteristic may uncover opportunities for improvement within their organizations.

There are other areas of innovative and ongoing research within the EPRRTC. Among them are the implications of an aging workforce in relation to disability management practices, and the effect that employer-sponsored health insurance has on job-change patterns of employees with disabilities. The research findings should continue to offer useful information for employers and policymakers, amplifying the positive impact of human resource practices, organizational climate, and the importance of leadership in determining the employment outcomes of people with disabilities.

by Ellice Switzer

Research funded by the Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, conducted by Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute. Partners included the university’s Institute for Compensation Studies, its Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, The Conference Board, and the Society for Human Resource Management.


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