In-depth Analysis

Employment and Disability Institute wins $4 million grant to study employer practices
Department of Education National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
Monday, October 18, 2010

What kind of manager is most effective at implementing disability policy?

Can organizations help people with disabilities feel more engaged and fully utilized at work?

How can employers be better equipped to recruit and retain people with disabilities, including returning veterans?

These are just some of the questions that the Employment and Disability Institute, along with other ILR and external partners, will explore during the next five years.

The work is funded by a $4 million grant from the Department of Education National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

The project goal is to create "knowledge about the differences that exist in employer practices toward hiring, advancing, and retaining individuals with disabilities…This new knowledge will contribute to more targeted interventions to improve employer practices."

Susanne Bruyère, ILR associate dean of outreach and EDI director, said there are a number of specific employment outcomes that study findings can inform and facilitate.

"We'd like to see more people with disabilities being hired and retained, more being able to advance in their careers, and fewer being disparately affected by layoffs. Often, people with disabilities can be marginalized when there’s an economic crunch," Bruyère said.

The study's 13 research projects include focus groups and surveys with human resources executives, as well as in-depth analysis of employer practices with private and public sector organizations.

Several research activities will focus on how compensation affects employees with disabilities. Kevin Hallock, a co-principal investigator for this project and director of ILR's Institute for Compensation Studies, said they hope to learn more about the total compensation gap and the differences in compensation for people with and without disabilities, something that has never been done before.

"This means looking at all wage and non-wage attributes such as flexible work schedules, work-life balance and other benefits," Hallock said. "We'll also be looking at the compensation mix. If a person with a disability is working in a job at a lower wage but also has poor health benefits, then it’s important for us, and for employers, to know that."

Lisa Nishii, ILR assistant professor of human resources, will lead some of the research work with employers. This research goes beyond national surveys and takes a "deep dive" into organizations for a closer look at how culture, policies and practices, leadership and work group dynamics affect the employment experiences of people with disabilities, she said.

"In a previous Department of Labor study, 75 percent of managers said they weren't aware of disability policies, even though their organizations had these in place. We hope to learn more about the discrepancies between espoused and enacted policy and the obstacles that affect awareness and implementation of policy," Nishii said.

While employers are a primary audience of this study, research and outreach activities will target rehabilitation agency providers, people with disabilities and their families, disability advocates, other researchers, policymakers and the media.

Judy Young, EDI assistant director of training and development, said that bringing together the rehabilitation and employment communities is critical to the study's success. ILR's connections and established relationships in both communities were a competitive advantage that helped secure the grant.

"Our prior research shows that employment participation rates for Americans with disabilities are approximately half that of their non-disabled peers (40 percent compared to 80 percent)," Young said. "With this study, we’re looking at all the stakeholders who can contribute to increasing these workforce participation rates and who have a say in whether a person with a disability will be successful at work."

Another outcome of the study, Bruyère said, is to develop an online tool that will help employers assess their effectiveness in recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities. There will be a "significant outreach effort" in years four and five, she adds, to better ensure that employers have ready access to information on best practices.

"Many of the best practices we hope to identify will also apply to helping employers retain an aging workforce and more proactively recruit, retain and support returning veterans with disabilities," Bruyère said.

Nishii hopes that besides learning more about the factors that affect people with disabilities after they're hired, greater insight will be gained about broader diversity and diversity policy issues. By linking disability-specific findings to those involving members of other protected groups, she hopes to help make disability research more visible within mainstream diversity research.

"People from so many fields are involved in this project – economists, psychologists, medical and business professionals," Nishii said. "We're excited about the synergism this collaborative project will afford. There’s much to be learned about the interplay of organizational culture, climate, practice and norms."

Partners in the Department of Education Research Project

  • Employment and Disability Institute
  • Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS)
  • Institute for Compensation Studies (ICS)
  • ILR Executive Education and Human Capital Development group
  • e-Cornell
  • The Conference Board (TCB)
  • Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)
  • National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)
  • Disability Management Employers' Coalition (DMEC)