Survey shows U.S., U.K. workplace more receptive to disabilities

December 16, 1999

ITHACA, N.Y. --People with disabilities -- one in six of us -- must surmount workplace obstacles that those without disabilities never even notice, everything from inaccessible work spaces to indifferent, or even intolerant, colleagues. The picture is beginning to improve, however, spurred by the recent passage of such legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States in 1990 and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in the United Kingdom -- Great Britain and Northern Ireland -- in 1995.

The Program on Employment and Disability at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations undertook a study of 2,000 U.S. and U.K. human resource professionals -- the people who hire at most companies. The purpose? To determine their response to the new laws and identify ways to eliminate workplace discrimination against people with disabilities. Its results were published this fall. Susanne Bruyère, the Cornell program's director, discussed the study's findings this December as the keynote speaker of an international videoconference that was part of the "Celebrating Change" Disability Millennium Festival in Belfast. She also presented the results at an international meeting in Harrogate, England, this October.

"People with disabilities still represent a largely untapped employment resource," said Bruyère. "They are often greatly underemployed or unemployed altogether."

Bruyère sees this as an unfortunate trend, with employers and the economy as the real losers. "With a shrinking labor force in some countries and an increasing need for skilled labor in certain industries, now is the right time to explore how to recruit and integrate skilled people with disabilities into the workplace.

The best news: The survey showed that organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom already have done a lot of training of their HR professionals in the new laws. Many U.S. and U.K. companies have become more flexible in their policies toward hiring employees with disabilities and have made their facilities more accessible to them since the ADA and DDA were enacted. And most of the HR professionals surveyed on both sides of the

Atlantic saw the cost of training, supervising and accommodating employees with disabilities as less of a problem than combating negative attitudes toward them among co-workers and supervisors. An exception was Northern Ireland, where accommodation costs ranked high as a barrier.

While those surveyed agreed that improving people's attitudes remains a big challenge, they already know how to go about it. More than two-thirds of the respondents worked for organizations with return-to-work, retention or disability management programs and saw those as an effective way to change attitudes as well as comply with the new legislation.

There were differences too. The survey showed U.S. employees to be better record keepers than their U.K. counterparts. In Northern Ireland 56 percent of those surveyed worked for firms that kept no records at all on accommodations made for employees with disabilities. In the rest of the United Kingdom, 35 percent kept no records, while in the United States only 13 percent kept none.

The survey also revealed a different chain of responsibility for accommodation among companies in the different countries. In the United States, it was the human resources staff that made the final decisions on how to accommodate employees with disabilities, whereas in the United Kingdom, the managers and directors of the employees made the decisions.

U.S. employers were more familiar than their U.K. counterparts with how to frame nondiscriminatory questions to job applicants, such as inquiring about their ability to perform specific job tasks, not their disability. They also were better informed about what could not be asked or required under the new laws, such as information on their medical health.

On the other hand British respondents were better prepared to handle job applicants with vision problems than their U.S. counterparts were and knew more about adapting printed materials used in the interview process to large print, diskette or Braille. Both the U.S. and U.K. groups appeared least informed about how to accommodate employees with hearing problems and mental health disabilities and wanted more information.

An area still seen as a barrier to the hiring of more people with disabilities was their relative lack of training and work experience, which Bruyère hopes future government-sponsored training programs may remedy. And finally, while the U.K. companies of those surveyed were much more likely to be unionized than the U.S. companies, U.S. unions were involved more often in getting workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities.

In addition to Cornell's Program on Employment and Disability, survey collaborators included the Society for Human Resource Management, the Washington Business Group on Health and the Employers' Forums on Disability in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For a report, contact Susanne Bruyère at (607) 255-9536, or view this web site:

Cornell University

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