Will the Pandemic Make Employers More Empathetic to Individuals with Disabilities?

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Jason Hartfield smiles at the camera. Jason has fair skin, sandy hair, wears round wire glasses and is wearing a blue suit with a dotted tie.

by Jason Hartsfield, MSW, SDI Adult Career Services Coordinator


An inclusive culture goes beyond the current employees of a company. It’s a commitment that should be evident from the earliest stages of the talent acquisition process. Sadly, unconscious bias, inaccessible technology and a fundamental lack of consideration prevent many candidates with disabilities from even getting to the interview.

It takes more than slapping “EOE” (Equal Opportunity Employers) at the end of your job application, more than simply including the word “disability” among the list of characteristics your organization doesn’t discriminate on the basis of. A commitment to inclusion should be apparent from the very first interaction, and as the initial points of contact, it’s up to recruiters and human resources professionals to set this tone.

Being an inclusive employer means more than simply being willing to provide reasonable accommodation, which is really the minimum standard. There’s an assumption that all people with disabilities know what accommodations are and how to request them. Many are expert self-advocates, but I’ve also known people who’ve had disabilities their entire lives who knew nothing of accommodations or their right to them. A truly inclusive hiring process reminds applicants of their rights every step of the way.

Our media and popular culture often portray being disabled as something to be pitied or ashamed of rather than something we’re all going to become eventually. As a result, many individuals, particularly those who acquire their disabilities later in life, don’t want to acknowledge it. They’re scared of being discriminated against; they’re scared of being seen as weak. So they try not to make waves.

Make it clear to your applicants that accommodations are available and requesting one will not be viewed as a strike against them.

In recent years, companies have increasingly turned to recruiting automation tools and artificial intelligence (AI) in an effort to sift through resumes, rank candidates and make the best job matches. According to a 2018 LinkedIn survey, 67 percent of companies reported using some form of AI in their talent acquisition processes.

Since the pandemic has forced more business to be done remotely, an even greater number of companies are relying on virtual assessments, job simulations and automated video platforms for conducting virtual interviews. As AI plays a more prominent role further along the talent-acquisition funnel, the number of candidates with disabilities being excluded by these automation tools also grows.

Candidates are receiving emails with a link that says, “You’ve been selected for this automated assessment. Click here to proceed.” But the link takes applicants to a third-party site that may or may not be compatible with assistive technology, and there’s rarely anything mentioned about what to do if an accommodation is needed.

Even in situations where the candidate doesn’t use any type of assistive technology — perhaps they have an anxiety disorder or a cognitive disability like dyslexia — a timed assessment or job simulation isn’t going to be the most equitable or effective method of evaluation.

On-demand video interview platforms like HireVue use AI to assess a candidate’s demeanor, facial expressions, tone of voice and word choice. But where does this leave people who use American Sign Language? How does it interpret a blind person’s inability to maintain steady eye contact with the camera? How does it evaluate a qualified applicant who also has a speech impediment? The capacity to discriminate is practically endless with this type of technology.

Companies are using these automated tools as a means of being more efficient, and these AI systems are supposed to eliminate negative stereotypes and preconceived notions from the hiring process. But because humans build them, the first generation really isn’t that great at removing biases.

For members of traditionally marginalized groups, there’s still something to be said for having direct contact with a representative of a prospective employer. One instance of discrimination is enough to wreck a person’s trust, so an ongoing dialogue is the only way to fully embrace a culture of inclusion.

At the Starkloff Disability Institute, we’re fortunate to work with companies who are very receptive to such ideas, remaining flexible and accommodating to our candidates during difficult times.

Overall, virtual work has actually proven beneficial for individuals with disabilities for a number of reasons. And what’s happening right now is really opening the eyes of employers to the privilege they’ve enjoyed as able-bodied people. Just being able to hop in a car and drive to and from work each day is an incredible privilege most people take for granted.

Suddenly, we’re confined to our homes and companies are forced to do business remotely. They’re seeing firsthand the necessity of remaining flexible and adaptable in order to thrive amid difficult circumstances.

I believe this realization is making employers more empathetic to many of the challenges our candidates face on a daily basis. My hope is that, coming out of the pandemic, this empathy continues and results in policies that make it easier for individuals with disabilities to get and retain jobs.

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