People with disabilities represent a quarter of the Unites States population yet remain underrepresented in the workplace. Data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only one in three working age people with disabilities were employed in 2021, compared to three-quarters of their nondisabled peers. This substantial chasm exists despite studies showing that people with disabilities have similar qualifications and motivation for employment as people without disabilities.
In recent years, we have seen improvements in the diversity and inclusion efforts of US organizations, with many prioritizing marginalized groups. Organizations recognize the competitive edge provided by a diverse workforce. In line with national and global trends to create a diverse workforce, law firms have also made diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a core value. Although disability is typically included in DEI statements and supplier diversity policies, law firms continue to fall short in creating a truly inclusive and equitable workplace environment where people with disabilities are truly valued, can bring their true selves to work, and are given the opportunities they need to succeed. As such, workers with disabilities remain an underutilized pool of talent in the profession.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted inequities encountered by employees with disabilities. Despite the low unemployment rate and job openings at record highs, the disability employment gap narrowed only slightly. Further, the shift to remote work highlighted discrepancies in the treatment of employees with disabilities who pre-pandemic had requested, but been denied, telework as a workplace accommodation. Many talented individuals with disabilities have been excluded from work because of the lack of this accommodation. During the pandemic, issues related to accessibility of technology also arose. Virtual platforms for meetings and events became the norm. However, these platforms often lacked real-time captions for deaf and hard of hearing employees. Likewise, blind employees who use screen readers could not access content shared through their screen sharing features.
Achieving Disability Equity
Given the impact of COVID-19 on the nature of work, the workplace, and organizational culture, a renewed attention to workplace inequities encountered by attorneys with disabilities is needed. A first-of-its-kind investigation of the legal profession conducted by the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University, in collaboration with the American Bar Association (ABA), highlighted some of these inequities. The survey collected data between 2018-2019 from 3,590 lawyers nationwide in workplaces of all types and sizes about their self-reported experiences. Results showed that attorneys with disabilities, particularly those who have multiply marginalized identities face an unwelcoming workplace culture that limits their ability to get or keep a job, access accommodations, and disclose their identity to team members.
People with disabilities face a variety of barriers from employers in getting and keeping a job. At the hiring stage and after they are employed, they encounter stereotypes, biases, and discrimination regarding their ability to work, resulting in negative workplace experiences. Our survey showed that lawyers with disabilities and those who embody multiply marginalized identities are at a significantly higher relative risk of reporting discrimination (versus no discrimination).
Workplace accommodations are individualized modifications to how the job is performed or to the work environment itself. Accommodations are essential to achieving equity, providing employees with disabilities the resources and opportunities they need to thrive and succeed. Access to workplace accommodations remains a barrier to attorneys with disabilities. Our survey showed that lawyers with disabilities and those with multiply marginalized identities were less likely to receive workplace accommodations.
Disclosure is a central element of the accommodation process. To avoid stigma and discrimination, individuals with disabilities often choose to forgo disclosing and requesting accommodations even when needed. Stereotypical perceptions of certain disabilities have implications on who discloses and who requests and is granted accommodations. Our survey showed that women, young attorneys, and parents are less likely to disclose disabilities. In addition, attorneys with less apparent disabilities such as psychiatric conditions were less likely to disclose compared to those with more apparent disabilities. This may reflect the apparent lack of choice for attorneys with apparent disabilities, as well as stigma and discrimination prevalent in the legal profession associated with certain disabilities such as mental health.
The Path Forward
Our survey suggests that efforts to address employment disparities of people with disabilities should focus on addressing issues of equity in hiring, retention, compensation, and provision of accommodations. Inclusion of diverse talent cannot be achieved without ensuring and promoting equity in the workplace and its processes.
NOTE: This line of study was supported in part by grants to Peter Blanck (PI) at Syracuse University from the Administration on Community Living (“ACL”), National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (“NIDILRR”), in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (“HHS”) for: Rehabilitation Research & Training on Employment Policy—Center for Disability-Inclusive Employment Policy Research Grant, and the Southeast ADA Center Grant. NIDILRR is a Center within ACL, HHS. The contents of this article do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, or HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.
†Peter Blanck, University Professor & Chairman, Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University, https://bbi.syr.edu/bio/peter-blanck
††Fitore Hyseni, Research Associate BBI, Ph.D. Candidate, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University
††† Nanette Goodman, Director of Research, BBI, Syracuse University