Disability Employment: A Data-Driven Roadmap
For employers who are ready to invest in disability employment, data is one of the best ways to create a game plan. As a tool, data analysis can highlight opportunities to make an organizational culture, policies, and processes more inclusive for both job applicants and employees with disabilities. Used responsibly, accurate employee data also serves as an early warning system for systemic organizational issues and as a compass toward a successful path forward for becoming a disability-inclusive employer. Despite these benefits, however, employers frequently run into one major common problem for employee disability demographic data: underreporting.
Most employers with 100 or more employees (federal contractors have a lower threshold) are legally required to collect job applicant and employee demographic information related to race, ethnicity, sex, veteran status, and disability status. Unlike other types of demographic data, employees voluntarily decide whether or not to disclose their disability status.
Frequently, employers will ask why job applicants and employees often seem uncomfortable disclosing their disability status. When this question is posed, one response might be: What have you, as an employer, done to make disability disclosure an easy, safe, and transparent process for your employees?
Understanding the Barriers to Disclosure
Disclosing a disability to an employer (or potential employer) is a deeply personal and sometimes difficult choice. Job applicants and employees must often weigh several considerations:
Is their disability visible or non-apparent? A disability that can be immediately seen by others might be simpler to disclose, whereas a non-apparent disability (e.g., anxiety, dyslexia) might be harder to disclose due to potential doubt or discrimination from others.
Do they need an accommodation? If an accommodation is needed, they may have to disclose a disability even if they’d otherwise choose not to. If an accommodation is not needed and it doesn’t have any effect on their ability to do their job, some may decide there’s not a lot of benefit to disclosing.
How much do they need the job? If a job applicant is in a precarious financial position and needs a job as soon as possible, they may refrain from disclosing a disability so that a potential employer isn’t concerned or hesitant to hire them.
Are they in a position to screen out undesirable employers? If a job applicant has some financial security and the flexibility to choose between employers, being transparent about a disability is one method they may use to avoid potential employers that are perceived to be unfriendly toward employees with disabilities.
Will they be safe if they disclose a disability? Potential stigma and prejudice is still a concern for many people with disabilities today, more so for some disabilities than others. Disclosing a disability may carry a higher psychological risk for some people, particularly if they have had negative experiences in the past or if they fear what may happen if others learn about their disability. Unless an employer proves themselves trustworthy, applicants and employees may feel safer not disclosing.
Since disability data can only be given voluntarily, employers have a great responsibility to prove that they can be discreet and respectful when collecting, storing, and making use of such personal information.
Building Trust with Employees
In the summer of 2019, the City of Portland conducted a workforce survey to offer employees an opportunity to update their disability demographic status. Prior to the survey, 148 employees had self-identified as having a disability. After the survey, that number had more than doubled, increasing to 332 employees. As of March 2022, there are currently 389 employees who have self-identified as having a disability working for the City of Portland – the highest known number of employees with disabilities to date.
How did this happen? It took a combination of five major factors: purpose, education, transparency, empathy, and ease of use.
Purpose: Employees may not realize why sharing their disability status with their employer is meaningful or important. Being able to explain how the data will be used, why, and when can go a long way in demonstrating that this data is being requested for thoughtful reasons, not just to “check a box”.
Education: Employees might not be aware of what the standard federal definition for disability is. Unless an employee has had prior experience with disability, they may not realize that an existing condition they have – like dyslexia, ADHD, or a traumatic brain injury (TBI) – qualifies as a disability for demographic purposes. Sharing the definition of disability during a survey helps employees recognize when the survey might be especially applicable to them. As a bonus, it can educate employees on civil rights protections they have under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Transparency: It’s important to be able to provide clear, understandable, and easily available guidelines on how an employee’s demographic information will be stored and used, and what measures are taken (or can’t be taken) in regards to confidentiality and anonymity. Employees may also feel reassured if there is an existing written policy prohibiting misuse of data or retaliation for disclosure of a disability, with a clear process on what happens if the rule is not adhered to.
Empathy: Employers should emphasize that disability disclosure is voluntary. Empowering employees with the ability to make their own choices regarding their disability information provides a sense of freedom, safety, and security. Demonstrating respect for whatever their decision is will make it more likely (not less) that they’ll disclose.
Ease of Use: For employees in the field, pollsters went and visited their location onsite with a paper form, envelope, and pens. For employees regularly using computers, an accessible digital form option was provided. All in all, the survey took less than 5 minutes to complete per employee. Making it as easy and painless as possible for employees to complete the survey increases the likelihood of achieving a higher response rate.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
An employer’s job is far from done once disability data has been collected. For starters, appropriate storage and retention of disability data is an important consideration. Confidentiality of the data is another; access to an individual employee’s personal demographic data, particularly disability data, should only be permitted rarely and on an as-needed basis for a work-related reason. It’s a good idea to have a plan for when and how aggregate and disaggregate disability demographic data is shared so that the organization can simultaneously share its progress on disability employment while respecting employee privacy.
And of course, disability data can be used to build a roadmap for inclusive disability employment within the organization. Often, data will illuminate potential gaps and opportunities in recruitment, selection, employee engagement, and/or employee retention, which can lead to eventual policy, process, and procedural improvement. By tackling these issues at their heart, and using data as a consistent barometer for course correction, employers will be well on their way to ensuring their organization is welcoming to applicants and employees with disabilities and those without.
Anais Keenon has been a Disability Employment Supervisor at the City of Portland since April 2018 and has been a passionate disability equity advocate for over 10 years. As a deaf person, she is fluent in both English and American Sign Language (ASL). She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon (2012) and a Master’s degree from Gallaudet University (2014).
Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Data Collection (https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/eeo-data-collections)
City of Portland Workforce Survey 2019 (https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bhr/article/744426)