Work/Life

This Is How Employers Weed Out Disabled People From Their Hiring Pools

A recent ad for a journalism job underscored the challenges that can face job candidates with disabilities.

Applying for jobs is a formidable task, but it’s even more challenging for people with disabilities — the largest and one of the most underemployed minority groups in the world. So when I came across an employment listing on Newsday’s careers website last Monday featuring job requirements related to mobility, strength, weight and size, I was shocked.

The job listing advertised a general assignment reporter role for the Long Island-based newspaper in New York. In addition to actual job-related functions like “ability to break news” and “meet tight deadlines,” the posting listed bullet points requiring the “ability to reach, bend, lift, push, pull and carry a minimum of 25 lbs” and the “ability to type a minimum of 40 wpm.” Another bullet point noted that the role was a sedentary desk job that would “require one’s ability to sit for an extended period of time up to full 8-hour shift.”

This listing was particularly egregious to me because I’m a disabled journalist, and I started my career in 2016 as a summer intern for amNewYork, a Newsday-owned publication that covers New York City. During my internship, I scored front-page bylines, shot several cover photos on assignment, interviewed celebrities on the red carpet and made some incredible friends. Even though I was an intern, my managers treated me seriously, as though I were a full-time staff reporter.

When I saw that listing online, I couldn’t help but think of the journalism students and aspiring reporters with disabilities who might have seen it and decided not to apply. So I decided to ask Newsday publicly on Twitter why the organization had included these exclusionary job qualifications on not just one, but what I realized were several of their job postings — including one for a director of market research and a circulation compliance analyst.

A Newsday job listing for a Circulation Compliance Analyst, which has been deleted and re-uploaded since June 10.
A Newsday job listing for a Circulation Compliance Analyst, which has been deleted and re-uploaded since June 10.

Within minutes, dozens of reporters and people with disabilities had liked and shared my Twitter thread. Several people demanded Newsday take down the listing, while others said they had seen similar language on job postings in other industries.

A couple of hours later, I checked Newsday’s employment website again. The vast majority of its job listings had been taken down, and only five were left. The listings were replaced shortly thereafter with new ones that did not include the original problematic language.

Kim Grabina-Como, a communications manager for Newsday, tweeted an apology to me.

“The job posting you originally referred to was posted in error, did not accurately reflect Newsday’s requirements for reporting positions, and has now been corrected. We’re sorry for the error and any misunderstandings,” Grabina-Como wrote.

“Newsday has a long and proud track record of inclusive recruiting and hiring,” Grabina-Como added in a phone interview Friday, although she wouldn’t share how many people with disabilities Newsday actually employs.

Job listings that discourage candidates with disabilities from applying are far from being limited to just Newsday’s careers site. They’re pervasive across professional industries, from news media to finance to higher education. On ZipRecruiter, searching for “ability to type” yields nearly 300 job postings, even though voice-recognition software is often considered a reasonable accommodation, and the phrase “25 pounds” leads to more than 950 job listings for roles such as a finance director, secretary and sales representative.

In March, Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, took down a job opening for an assistant diversity and inclusion director that included “must be able to access non-ADA compliant building” as a requirement. The Disability Policy Consortium, a disability advocacy organization, called Bradley University out for its hypocrisy in a Facebook post, saying the job listing was “a blatant example of how disability gets left out of academic diversity and inclusion efforts.”

The post was shared more than 1,000 times, and the university issued an apology and removed the requirement from the posting.

The reality is that many jobs require physical mobility ― for example, construction work and firefighting. In those cases, including “essential functions” on a job listing can be helpful for prospective candidates to determine whether they need to ask for an accommodation to perform the required duties. But the focus of job listings should be on the job itself rather than a person’s various capabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“For example, a warehouse position may require that boxes be stacked on shelves. The essential function of this job is that boxes be stacked, not that a person lift boxes,” the department states on its website.

Yet, it is all too common for career pages to use phrases such as “the ability to talk and hear” or “ability to stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl” to describe job functions that aren’t actually “essential” to the job, effectively screening out people with a variety of disabilities who might otherwise be able to do the work, according to Robyn Powell, an attorney specializing in disability law and policy.

Whereas the ability to “reach, bend, lift, push, pull and carry a minimum of 25 pounds” might be important for a fitness trainer, the prerequisite is more dubious for a reporter or market researcher.

“People with disabilities are entirely underemployed. One of the reasons is because of discrimination in the workplace,” said Powell, who is disabled herself. “When you see these type of job postings, it’s no surprise they’re not working at the same rate as their nondisabled peers.”

Companies have many ways to list job qualifications using more general, open-ended language. A news outlet that needs a reporter who can churn out content, for example, could list a certain number of stories required per day rather than a typing speed, said Kristin Gilger, director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“It’s open to people saying, ‘I can accomplish what you’re asking for, but I need an accommodation in order to do it in a different way,’” Gilger said. “The point is, can you do the work?”

“When you’re applying for a job, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat.”

- Robyn Powell, disability attorney

The Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, applies to employment from the moment a job is advertised, not just once someone is hired, Powell said. In job interviews, employers can ask candidates whether they can complete a certain job function, but they can’t specifically ask about the nature or severity of their disabilities — something I personally have been asked multiple times during a job search.

That means disabled candidates could theoretically submit an ADA claim when they see a problematic job listing. But in reality, proving employment discrimination is extremely difficult. One downside of the ADA is that the onus is on the individual who’s been discriminated against to speak up, Powell said. For many job seekers, submitting a lawsuit isn’t high on the to-do list.

“I’ve encountered tons of discrimination when I’ve applied for jobs and in the hiring process. I’ve never taken action even though I could, and it’s because I was looking for a job,” Powell said. “When you’re applying for a job, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat.”

Job candidates aren’t the only ones who miss out when a disability unfairly costs them a position. Diverse workplaces see a better bottom line, and people with disabilities are especially innovative employees because they have to navigate a world that’s designed for abled people instead.

“As you want to attract the best possible people to your workplace, you don’t want to discourage a number of highly qualified people who don’t want to apply because they see these sort of requirements,” Gilger said.

Job postings that describe certain working conditions as “essential” can also set harmful, unrealistic expectations for current employees. For example, listings often say that workers have to sit for an extended period of time, up to eight hours — but that’s not a reasonable expectation for any person, disabled or otherwise.

“That’s ridiculous. No one should sit for eight hours,” Gilger said. “That’s just not good for people’s health.”

Elizabeth Estochen, 28, a full-time editor based in Denver, said she has seen mobility-related qualifications on almost every single job that she’s ever applied for. At the age of 14, she was diagnosed with scoliosis, which has progressed over the years. Even though she has a stable job, Estochen said she’s worried about encountering similar job listings in the future if her scoliosis gets worse — which it already is. A couple of months ago, she herniated two discs.

“During that period of time, I was lucky enough to have this job already nailed down where I’m able to work remotely and I was able to work from my bed for like a week. I really thought about it: ‘God, what would happen if I lost this job and had to find another one?’”