From institutionalized discrimination to pandemic layoffs, people with disabilities have struggled to retain stable employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment rate of Americans with disabilities was 17.9% by the end of 2020. The employment rate for people without disabilities was 61.8%.

Well before even entering the workplace, people with disabilities face barriers in the job hiring process, from inaccessible or discriminatory job descriptions to poorly designed interviews, according to a report by Mashable. It’s important to note that these aren’t inherent obstacles. Simple changes by employers can make the entire process more inclusive and expose their businesses to a wider talent pool.

As the country experiences what many have called the “Great Resignation”  — with millions of people leaving jobs and demanding more support from their employers — it’s a perfect time to review the accessibility of your hiring practices.

In October, Disability Rights California (DRC), a national disability rights nonprofit, partnered with Deque, a digital accessibility consultation group, to create a guide for employers on fostering a more disability-inclusive hiring and recruiting process. It debunks common myths about accommodating people with physical and intellectual disabilities and offers tips for recruiting, application writing and interviewing prospective employees.

The conclusion? Employers have an opportunity to make their hiring processes more accessible with just a little forethought. Here’s how:

  1. Write flexible, detailed job descriptions. Job descriptions can be an early roadblock in the hiring process and should go beyond a simple Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statement. EEO statements are a federal requirement for employers, and they state a commitment to uphold non-discrimination laws under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the exact wording of EEO statements is up to the employers themselves, and they may leave out the nuances of an inclusive hiring process.
  2. The Employee Assistance and Resource Network is an advisory and education group for employers seeking to diversify their hiring processes, and they have written extensively about creating job announcements that are both inclusive and encouraging for prospective applicants with disabilities. It suggests emphasizing the end goals, or specific needs, of job positions, rather than how the job should be accomplished.
  3. To that end, check your assumptions. Unchecked assumptions about both a job’s requirements and the qualifications of people with disabilities can often inhibit job descriptions. Do you have a job posting that you think cannot be done by a person with X disability? Double check that assumption! Go to your human resources representative and brainstorm with them about the essential functions of the job.
  4. For example, instead of saying “must have strong written and oral communications skills” write “must be able to communicate with others effectively.” Rather than “must be able to stand for long periods of time” write “ability to remain at work station for long periods of time.” Simple language changes like these open a position to a much wider range of applicants.
  5. Effective and inclusive job descriptions should include five things:
    • A specific description of the job’s tasks.
    • Information about the physical work environment (is it in a collaborative, loud office setting or is there a remote work option?).
    • A description of workplace culture and social interaction.
    • The option for flexible accommodations.
    • A clear list of a job’s physical demands.
  1. Make sure online applications are accessible to all users. Many of the suggestions proposed by Deque and DRC’s guide are related to the idea of universal design, which prioritizes objects, environments and experiences that automatically include as many people as possible, regardless of ability. Universally designed processes generally don’t need to be reworked to accommodate specific needs, but they do make it easier to add in accessible design features if and when they’re needed.
  2. Web-based hiring could benefit from these principles. Online application portals are convenient and often intended to make the job process as open as possible, but they can also be difficult to use for people with physical or cognitive disabilities, according to DRC. For example, text might not be compatible for screen readers needed by applicants who are blind, search functions might not be optimized for people with disabilities and low-contrast screens can be illegible for people with low vision.
  3. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers provide equal opportunity, starting with access to the application process, and there are even international standards for coding web pages with accessibility in mind. The global Web Accessibility Initiative is a digital accessibility standards program by the World Wide Web Consortium, a global network of organizations and specialists focused on web development standards. The initiative has published in-depth checklists for evaluating a website’s general accessibility, including providing alt-text descriptions for all images on a page, summarizing complicated passages of text, or allowing pages to have customizable settings for things like text size and color contrast.
  4. Other examples include the ability to only use a keyboard to fill out the application, helpful for people with fine motor difficulties who can’t use a mouse, and creating applications that are still functional when zoomed in to at least 400% to accommodate those who have low vision.
  1. Design interviews with accessibility in mind. Deque and DRC’s guide urges employers to create interview processes that don’t need to be changed based on an applicant’s needs. Instead of reacting to accommodation requests at the time of the interview, design a process that already considers accessibility and allows for accommodations well in advance.
  2. For in-person interviews, use spaces that are easily accessed by wheelchairs and offer to have onsite interpreters. And make sure to give applicants relevant information ahead of the interview, including the format of any required exams and a clear time frame and direction for any specialized transportation, like large vans or other mobility devices.
  3. For online interviews, use video services that are accessible for deaf or hard-of-hearing applicants, like the live captions offered on Zoom.
  4. You should also create space in an interview for flexibility: Offer extended answer times for responses, Taylor recommends, or consider providing interview questions ahead of time, which could be helpful for many neurodivergent job candidates (and everyone, really).
  5. Whenever possible, include people with disabilities on the hiring panels. At the bare minimum, train staff, recruiters or interviewers in disability etiquette for accommodations and ensure interview questions are ethically asked and ADA-compliant — employers shouldn’t be asking a candidate to disclose a disability before making any kind of job offer.
  1. Have protocols already in place for accommodations, after hiring. It’s important to already have a process for providing assistance to hired employees before it’s needed. Deque and DRC’s guide suggests reaching out to the Job Accommodation Network, a consultation and advocacy group for job accommodations and ADA compliance. The organization has a long list of disabilities and suggested accommodations for employers, as well as resources about ADA regulations, job support, and employer discrimination for both employed and unemployed individuals.
  2. Employers should collaborate with outside organizations to ensure employees with disabilities are treated fairly and have long-lasting support systems that foster retention, the guide explains. Look for those that offer comprehensive employee assistance programs — which provide counseling and workplace support for emotional and mental well-being.
  3. And it never hurts to facilitate employee-to-employee communication — the guide recommends mentoring programs for newly hired employees, matching them up with either current employees or outside organizations.