Posted: 28 Jun. 2018 05 min. read

Your bias is showing

Physical disability and job seeker discrimination

Technology, workplace discrimination laws and scientific advances have greatly increased workplace accessibility. Why then has discrimination against physically disabled people not decreased?

In an attempt to discover the determinants and extent of the labour market discrimination, Dr Charles Bellemare, Professor of Economics at Laval University, Canada carried out a large scale field experiment in Quebec and Montreal.

What he and his team found was that little has changed over the past decade for job seekers with a physical disability. Even with the provision of government subsidies to cover the cost of workplace adaptations and assistive technologies, discrimination is still alive and well across industries.


This study aimed to explore factors of discrimination in the job market for applicants with physical disabilities (wheelchair users) through a field experiment using real life job advertisements.

By way of background, in 2008 the Province of Quebec implemented a public policy document the National Strategy for Labour Market Integration and Maintenance of Handicapped Persons, to achieve employment equity and increase labour market participation for people with disabilities. One of the ways the strategy aimed to do this was to provide wage subsidies and financial assistance to organisations employing people with a disability. Statistics published by the Government of Quebec in 2012 indicated that in fact labour market participation had not increased for people with a disability. Further, a 2015 study by the Canadian Human Rights Commission found that almost half (49%) of discrimination cases between 2009 and 2013 related to disability issues and 84.3% of those complaints related to employment. It is against this backdrop that this research investigated whether there had been any meaningful change in labour market participation experiences.


In this experiment, applications (cover letter and CVs) were sent in response to open job advertisements for secretaries, receptionists, account clerks and computer programmers at 1,477 privately owned organisations. The locations were limited to two provinces (Quebec City and Montreal) and each application was randomised for a number of factors including gender, work history and educational attainment. The cover letters were randomised to include mention of a government subsidy that would cover up to 85% of wages for the employee as well as any work environment adaptions at no cost to the employer.

Additionally, researchers conducted anonymous visits to a subsample of the organisations (611) to determine the presence of accessible infrastructure, including building access ramps and elevators.

The research measured the number of successful call backs for each applicant to test the hypothesis that people with a disability are still discriminated against irrespective of the availability of government supports.


The research resulted in three major findings: (1) there were significant differences in the number of call back rates for applicants who were wheelchair users, (2) the accessibility of employer premises did not predict the low call back rate and (3) explicitly mentioning government subsidies in applications did not increase the likelihood of the applicant receiving a call back.

Finding 1: Overall, the differential call back rate between applicants with a physical disability and those without a disability was 46%, indicating significant employer bias in recruitment processes.

Finding 2: 71% of the 611 firms anonymously visited were deemed accessible by researchers. When this was compared to the number of call backs it did not explain the existence of bias towards applicants with a physical disability.

Finding 3: Applications which highlighted government subsidy programs were no more successful than those that did not mention any subsidies.


These three findings, in the words of the researchers, point to a “fundamental problem” in the way employers view job applicants with a physical disability. The enormity of the difference between the number of call backs cannot be understated and employers should be cautioned against reliance on the mere presence of workplace accessibility features as indicative of an inclusive workplace.

The findings also suggest that existing government incentives are not fully effective in either compensating for or reducing negative employer perceptions towards applicants with a physical disability. As a consequence, it would be prudent for Governments to consider additional strategies to increase labour market discrimination for people with a disability.

Overall, studies such as this are crucial in prompting leaders and HR professionals to be cognizant and build robust processes to reduce unconscious bias both in the workplace and in the job market, including transparency about, and accountability for, recruitment decisions.

For more information, contact Hilary Binks.

To read the full article, see Bellemare, C., Marion G., Guy L., Steeve M. (2018) “Physical Disability and Labor Market Discrimination: Evidence from a Field Experiment” IZA Institute of Labor Economics Discussion Paper No. 11461.

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