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Photo of Prof. David Pettinicchio sitting on the stairs outside of a UTM building.
David Pettinicchio. Photo by Ian Patterson

When Getting a Job Is Mission Impossible

Laws to end workplace discrimination against people with disabilities have mostly failed to boost employment. Sociologist David Pettinicchio wants to know why

When Kate Welsh, a 29-year-old artist and educator applies for a job, she faces more than the usual trepidation about whether there will be an interview and an offer of employment at the other end of an inherently competitive process. Welsh (MEd 2017) has a physical disability as well as a chronic illness that flares up from time to time, which means she always has to gauge when, in the process, she should disclose her conditions: in her cover letter or resumé, via a call prior to an interview or even just when she shows up for the meeting.

She also has to investigate whether the venue is genuinely accessible, or just cursorily so. “Arriving at a location that is not accessible is one of the worst things,” says Welsh. “There are so many steps before even getting in the door.”

The reality – borne out by surveys – is that many people with disabilities never get further than an interview. Ontarians with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than the working age population as a whole, and tend to earn considerably less when they are hired, says David Pettinicchio, a professor of sociology at U of T Mississauga.

He cites a 2006 Statistics Canada survey that found one in four people with disabilities felt they were denied a job interview because of their conditions. In the U.S., the situation is even more dire.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act is considered to be a highly robust anti-discrimination law, yet only 40 per cent of all people with disabilities in the U.S. work, and their employment rate has actually fallen steadily since the law came into effect.

“The question,” Pettinicchio asks, “is why?”

As it turns out, tracking the contours of hiring and workplace discrimination is difficult because employers either won’t admit to it (even on anonymous surveys), may not be conscious of the fact that they’re discriminating or aren’t aware of the impediments that people with disabilities encounter. “We’re not clear how this process of discrimination looks,” he says.

To get a better handle on these invisible dynamics, Pettinicchio, his University of Alberta collaborator Michelle Maroto and a team of graduate students are developing fictitious resumés and cover letters that will be sent this fall to 600 employers in Ontario who have posted job openings online.

Pettinicchio, who has a brother with a cognitive disability, says his team will spend the next two years analyzing the results – teasing out evidence of discrimination in the hiring process from the actual responses of employers, who won’t be aware that they’re being evaluated. (Companies will be debriefed later about the study.) He suspects that employer attitudes are the most difficult impediment facing people with disabilities. “I’m not sure policy has done enough to change employers’ perceptions,” says Pettinicchio.

Tim Rose would agree with that assessment. After graduating from the University of Nottingham with a master’s degree in human rights law, he felt he’d have little difficulty securing a job. But Rose, who has cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia, was mostly unemployed for four years before finally landing a position at Magnet, a Ryerson University-based group that supports people who face barriers to employment. (He now works at a financial institution.) “I firmly believe disability discrimination played a huge part in keeping me out of the work force,” says Rose, 32.

In his job with Magnet, he recalls making presentations at conferences about disability and workplace accessibility. The employers “would be nodding enthusiastically the whole time. Then I’d walk off stage and they wouldn’t actually hire anyone.”

In other cases, seemingly progressive recruiting policies don’t match practice. Andrew Gurza, a disability awareness consultant, cites the instance of a former employer who had initially assured him that they’d be able to work out any accessibility problems that arose. But over the course of several years, Gurza came to see that those promises were often empty. His managers resisted his request to work at home, or would question him as to why he sometimes needed to leave abruptly – typically because some of the equipment he relies on had malfunctioned.

“It takes a lot of guts to tell your employer that you have to go home because your incontinent device broke,” says Gurza, adding that he eventually quit when it became obvious that the company wasn’t prepared to accommodate his needs.

“It’s always on you,” adds Welsh, who notes that companies aren’t always able to provide complete and detailed information to employees or prospective employees about their accommodation procedures. And many still require or at least expect disabled staff members to be very specific in how they account for absences. “Within this ableist culture, people assume they have the right to know all the details of my disability and illness. I don’t necessarily want to share all my details with my boss.”

“It’s an education problem,” says Pettinicchio. “How do you link policy to what you want people to do?” His research aims to find ways of breaking down those invisible barriers by unpacking the factors that continue to keep people with disabilities from working.

“We know that employers who’ve hired people with disabilities are more likely to hire other people with disabilities because the uncertainties – about equipment, accessibility amenities and awkwardness among able-bodied employees – have disappeared,” he says.

“Experience really does help cast off those negative attitudes.”

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