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The hidden cost of disability discrimination

Taking advantage
Are some people taking advantage of disability access laws? 01:13

How many people in your office have a disability?

If you're in the US, about 30 percent of college-educated employees working full time in white-collar jobs have some kind of disability under the federal definition that was expanded last year, a new study from the Center for Talent Innovation found. That's almost one in three employees.

That's far more than the 3.2 percent that "self-identify" to employers tracked by the National Organization on Disability, according to the study, which the CTI said is the first of its kind.

What's more, 62 percent of employees with disabilities have the "invisible" kind, that is, people can't tell from just looking at them. 

More than one-third said they've experienced discrimination, or "negative bias." That can mean assumptions like they lack skills needed for a certain assignment, or they'll take too long to do a task, for instance. Those with visible disabilities fared worse, with 44 percent reporting discrimination, while 40 percent with some signs of disability saw discrimination. 

"It's complicated for people to be spending a lot of time to try and manage a condition working with, say, chronic migraines every day when they could easily manage that condition with different lighting at their desk, but are afraid to ask," said Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president and director of publications at CTI.

It's no wonder just 21 percent of people with disabilities tell human resource departments they have a disability, according to the survey. About 39 percent tell their managers. That can frustrate employers that want to make adjustments so people can do their jobs well, according to the survey.

Employees with disabilities are even more ambitious than those without, the study found. About 80 percent consider themselves to be very ambitious compared to 79 percent of those without a disability. But having a disability can also get in the way of building a career. Of those surveyed, 57 percent report feeling "stalled" compared to 44 percent of those without disabilities, according to the study.

That means employers, too, are losing out on growth when they neglect to create an atmosphere that allows everyone to fully participate, Taylor Kennedy said.

"It's costly for employers to have employees that can't contribute to their full potential. It's costly to have employees who are afraid of sharing their ideas because they know they might face bias or stigma from their colleagues," she said.

Another finding: Millennials make up 33 of employees with disabilities. That compares to 27 percent among Gen-X and 29 percent for baby boomers.

The higher numbers are likely for two reasons, the study says. One, millennials are the first generation to go through school under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that means more are making their way through college. Second, it's likely tied to the rates of diagnosis for some conditions -- like dyslexia, depression or forms of autism -- that weren't previously used.

The researchers used disclosure, defined as telling someone you have a disability of any kind, formally or informally. That's different than to "self-identify," which typically means checking a box when dealing with an employer survey.

For the US portion of the study, researchers asked 3,570 employees in white-collar professions between the ages of 21 and 65 the same series of questions asked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Researchers also asked about chronic illnesses, such as cancer or Parkinson's, and if those conditions posed challenges to career or work, along with other questions that disclosed disabilities, yielding the higher numbers.

The report included a look at  Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and the UK and how they differ from the US because multinational companies also need to know how to not only comply with the laws in their operations outside the US, but also address cultural differences, Taylor Kennedy said.

CTI also oversees something called The Task Force, a group of more than 80 global corporations and organizations representing nearly 6 million employees in 192 countries that aim to act on its study findings, according to the CTI website.

The disability report includes strategy examples from CTI members, including from companies such as Accenture (ACN), Bloomberg, and Unilever (UL). Organizations with expertise in employing people with disabilities like the US Business Leadership Network and Lime Connect also offer suggestions in the report.

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