Why do employers (not) hire people with disabilities?

The three main barriers for employers to hire people with disabilities are ideas about their productivity, expectations of high costs involved and a lack of knowledge about what disabilities entail – according to a literature review by Utrecht University. Although there are policies aimed at encouraging employers to employ more people with disabilities, the results remain limited. Only one in six employers employs someone with a disability (The Netherlands Institute for Social Research, 2022). With labour market shortages looming, hiring people with disabilities is often put forward as a solution worldwide. Yet, employers are hesitating.

If we want to change anything, we need to know more about what motivates employers, says Rosanna Nagtegaal, principal researcher of the ‘Samen aan het Werk’ (Together at Work) project. Research in this project focuses on identifying factors that influence employers, and is funded by the Instituut Gak.

Why do employers hire or not hire someone with a disability?

Researchers from Utrecht University have reviewed the international scientific literature on employers’ hiring behaviour. This shows that three obstacles often play a role for employers hiring someone with a disability:

  • Employers expect that people with disabilities are not productive.
  • Employers expect a lot of costs from hiring or employing people with disabilities.
  • Employers have little knowledge about disabilities.

Employers often don’t know what to expect and are uncertain about it, says Rosanna Nagtegaal. What will happen if you hire someone and can you offer that employee the right guidance, for example?

However, there are also incentives that actually encourage employers to hire people with disabilities. The main three incentives are:

  • Pro-social motivation or: the will to help another person and give them a chance.
  • If the organisation is relatively large.
  • Expecting competitive advantages.

Large organisations usually have more resources to comply with legislation regarding participation. They do not have to worry as much about productivity and costs and often have more knowledge of regulations and have in-house support. Some employers also actually see the added value for their organisation of hiring people with disabilities. For example, because it strengthens their reputation.

It is important that there really is a match between employee and employer

Differences between types of disabilities and types of employers

The researchers distinguish three groups of employees with disabilities: people with psychological, cognitive or physical disabilities. There are clear differences between what to organise as an employer for someone in a wheelchair, for example, or for someone with Down syndrome. So the target group and corresponding needs for successful participation in the labour process are very diverse. It is important to go beyond one-size-fits all approaches.

It is important that there really is a match between employee and employer and that they are well supported, says Yvette van den Broek, research assistant on the Together at Work project.

There are also differences between employers. For example, an employer in a large organisation is likely to react differently from an employer in a small organisation.

In a small organisation, there are often short lines of communication which can make a quick placement possible. At the same time, small organisations have fewer resources and more difficulty with the administration, for example, says Rosanna Nagtegaal.

What can we do?

If we want to change anything, we need to know what motivates employers, says Rosanna Nagtegaal. There is a whole range of factors, and they also vary by organisation and by type of disability. So why only a limited proportion of all employers hire people with disabilities is complex. Providing solutions is therefore not as simple as people sometimes think.

This does not mean we can’t do anything. We can focus on different aspects that can change hiring behaviour says Nagtegaal.

Current policy instruments only partially address these factors. For instance, in some countries, subsidies can be applied for to compensate for the lack of productivity. However, there is less intervention on beliefs around productivity or knowledge about constraints. There may also be more focus on context. For example, a subsidy may work well for a small organisation to compensate for the lack of resources, but may not be a decisive factor for a large organisation. There should therefore be room for customisation where policy makers can use a toolbox of policy instruments depending on the context.

There needs to be more subtlety in policy for it to be effective, says Yvette van den Broek, research assistant in the ‘Together at Work’ project.

In the continuation of their study, the researchers first want to identify whether the same causes influence hiring behaviour in the Dutch context specifically. They will also experiment with different actions, for example by focusing on understanding the experience of the employee with a disability. ‘Sharing that experience is a very powerful tool,’ says Yvette van den Broek.

Research team

Lars Tummers (project leader), Noortje de Boer, Rik van Berkel, Belle Derks, Yvette van den Broek, Rosanna Nagtegaal (principal researcher/post-doc).

Source: Utrecht University

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