Living with a Disability? Why Your Employer Wants to Know

Employment (or rather lack thereof) of people living with disabilities is a hot topic in the disabled community. According to a new report by the Department of Labor, while 12% of Americans are living with a disability, they make up only 3% of the workforce. The unemployment rate for people living with disabilities, which looks at the number of people who don’t have jobs but are actively looking for one, is 13.2% — compare that to the unemployment rate for able-bodied Americans, which is only 6.3%.

For years, disability advocates have sought ways to address this problem. The latest solution is in the form of a federal regulation — and it has some people crying foul.

These new regulations require federal contractors to employ at least 7% workers with a disability. If they don’t, they’ll be subject to fines and may even lose their government contracts. There are about 40,000 companies nationwide that contract with the federal government, including Boeing, Dell and AT&T. Here’s where it gets a little sticky. The only way to ensure contractors are meeting this new standard is for employers to directly ask their employees if they have a disability.

This is potentially problematic for a couple reasons. First, the ADA clearly states that employers cannot obtain information about a person’s disability status. So… how is this going to work, exactly? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made an exception for federal contractors.

Legal issues aside, what if people don’t want to disclose their disability? From the Wall Street Journal:

“The word disability means you’re not able to do something. People don’t want to be perceived that way,” said Joe Gavigan, a 37-year-old engineer at contractor GE Aviation. Mr. Gavigan was paralyzed in 1999 while a student at the U.S. Air Force Academy and later co-founded an employee resource group for individuals with disabilities at the General Electric Co. unit.

“You don’t want your boss to see you as being limited in your capability,” he said.

Certainly, this is an understandable concern. But it’s not the only one. From the Wall Street Journal:

The new guidelines were pushed in part by disability advocates, who say that previous government rules were ineffective at finding jobs for veterans and victims of illness or accident, even while technology has expanded the categories of jobs they are able to perform.

But even some of the rule’s proponents admit that a groundswell of hiring from that pool is unlikely to occur if employers are able to prove that enough disabled workers are already on the payroll.

“Why have the target in there if it’s not encouraging the hiring of people with disabilities?” asked Mike Aitken, vice president of government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Also a valid concern. It remains to be seen how this will play out, but we will certainly be watching it closely.

We want to hear from you! What do you think of this regulation? Do you think it will encourage employers to higher more people living with disabilities? Or do you think it is an invasion of privacy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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