Hiring people with disabilities requires looking beyond perceptions

Many people with disabilities would like to work but are not hired. There are many possible explanations for this persistent problem. Researchers from Utrecht University focused on the factors that influence employers’ hiring behaviour. They note that previous research has mainly focused on perceptions of productivity. However, perceptions are difficult to change. In the research report Samen aan het werk (Together at work), they show that explaining hiring behaviour is much more complex. Other factors, such as unfamiliarity with ’limitations’, play a role. In addition, employers often know little about the regulations and subsidy options. They often think that they do not have suitable positions for people with disabilities. Moreover, few employers have policies aimed at more inclusion.

On the one hand, the researchers therefore recommend investing in the capacities of employers (knowledge, skills). This can be done by simplifying regulation, through trial placements and by ’meet and greets’. On the other hand, good conditions in the working environment are important, such as policies aimed at inclusion for which organisations must be accountable, or: knowing how to create jobs as an employer.

Financed by Instituut Gak, the researchers sought answers to the question of how behavioural insights can ensure that employers hire more people with disabilities and ultimately offer them regular work. This may also provide insight into the effectiveness of the Participation Act and make suggestions for future policy.

After an international comparative literature review , they conducted interviews and a survey among employers and conducted an experiment regarding the application process. The results of their research are summarised in the report Samen aan het werk. Effectieve en gedragen gedragsverandering van werkgevers om meer mensen met een beperking aan te nemen. (’Together at work. Effective and supported behavioural change of employers in hiring more people with disabilities.’)

Obstacles and incentives

The international scientific literature on employer hiring behaviour shows that three obstacles often play a role for employers to take the step towards hiring someone with a disability:

    Employers expect people with disabilities to be unproductive

    Employers expect a lot of costs from hiring or employing people with disabilities

    Employers have little knowledge about disabilities

However, there are also incentives that encourage employers to hire people with disabilities. The most important are:

    Pro-social motivation: the will to help someone else and give them a chance

    If the organization is relatively large

    Expecting competitive advantages

Looking Beyond Perceptions

The scientific literature showed that the perception among employers is an important facet of their hiring behaviour - while it is precisely this that is difficult to change, according to the researchers. The interviews and survey also revealed other facets that were important for hiring behaviour.

Tackling these perceptions is very important, but sometimes you have to take concrete actions and training employers alone is not enough, says principal researcher Rosanna Nagtegaal. When I give presentations, I notice that working on perception is often a spearhead. But if that doesn’t actually have the most effect, is this the right way to go? Then you are working on the tip of the iceberg all the time, but not on the entire iceberg. So we need to look further. It is important, but certainly not the only significant element in the hiring behaviour of employers. Other elements may be more important, and also easier to influence, such as policy, job crafting (where the content of a job is adapted to an individual) or job carving (where you split up existing positions and thus create a new position).

If you make working on perception your spearhead, then you are constantly working on the tip of the iceberg, but not on the entire iceberg.

Rosanna Nagtegaal

A lot of employers indicate that there are really no positions for people with disabilities in the organization where they work, Nagtegaal continues. That in itself is remarkable, because the concept of ’disability’ is so broad that it is almost impossible. At the same time, they indicate that they know very little about it. So you could do something with that. Looking at what it means in your organization; Can’t we learn how to recognise those jobs anyway You often don’t even have to create them, they’re already there.

Communication Strategies in Resume’s

Many people with disabilities would like to work but are not hired. Employers discriminate these candidates. As soon as you say you experience a ’disability’, you’re 1-0 down. Even when there is no difference in productivity. In other words, the application procedures have limitations. Disabilities are therefore the result of an interaction between person and environment. Often changes in the environment can reduce the experience of disability, says Nagtegaal.

Emphasizing positive traits is even counterproductive

In an experiment, the researchers therefore tested the effect of two communication strategies in resume’s: emphasizing positive points or downplaying the disability. Contrary to their expectations, it didn’t matter how the potential candidate with a disability communicates about their disability. Downplaying the disability had no effect and the strategy of emphasizing positive traits (’I learned a lot from it’, ’it made me stronger’) is even counterproductive.

This also shows how difficult it is to positively influence that impression, Nagtegaal concludes. Do I know someone or am I someone with a disability - that probably matters much more, according to our research. How the social environment, what a company or organization looks like, also influences the hiring of people with disabilities.

Employers’ Capabilities and Opportunities Influence Hiring Behaviour

So it’s much more the capabilities of an employer that matter when it comes to hiring behaviour, the researchers say. By this they mean the knowledge that employers have and the opportunities that they get within their company or organization. Employers actually know very little about the regulations, subsidies and other options that are available, says Nagtegaal. And they are often complex.

Employers actually know very little about the regulation and subsidies

Companies and organizations also often lack policies aimed at hiring people with disabilities. Nevertheless, according to the researchers, inclusive policies which must be accounted for, are probably more effective than developing training courses for employers.

Does it matter how big an organization is? Nagtegaal: Smaller organisations can also have advantages. If you think of a small business whose owner has a son who experiences a disability, you often see that the motivation arises to really do something with it. Because the lines of communication are so short, this quickly translates into action. That is sometimes much more difficult in a large organisation.

Employers positive about training on people with disabilities and trial placements

Of course, it is also true that employers may have less positive experiences with hiring people with disabilities. It may not always be easy, either. It is also possible that employers want to, but do nothing about it. That happens a lot.

In the interviews and survey, the researchers asked what could help employers hire more people with disabilities. They turned out to be the most positive about: training on how to manage with people with disabilities; trial placements within their organisation and; show the benefits of hiring people with disabilities. Employers are the least positive about changing the policies within their organisation.

Nevertheless, the researchers do argue for the latter. Nagtegaal: Well, we can recommend that, but if there is no support for it... How successful is it going to be? Trial placements may be easier to achieve, although there are also caveats to this. It could be associated with ’free money’. But if both parties agree to it and solid agreements are guaranteed, then it can be positive and lead to someone eventually being hired.


In summary, in addition to working on perceptions and motivations (e.g. through training), the researchers recommend focusing on increasing employers’ capacities and opportunities, by, among other things:

    Simplifying the current regulatory environment

    Organise trial placements and meet-and-greets

    Create more features for people with disabilities

    Develop inclusive policies that organizations are accountable for

    Rewarding inclusive organisations for their policies

Rosanna Nagtegaal (principal investigator), Lars Tummers (project leader), Noortje de Boer. In collaboration with Rik van Berkel and Belle Derks.

Previous articles about this project: https://www.uu.nl/en/news/­why-do-emp­loyers-not­-hire-peop­le-with-di­sabilities (2022) and https://www.uu.nl/en/news/thr­ee-year-su­pport-for-­multidisci­plinary-re­search-pro­ject-samen­-aan-het-w­erk-workin­g-together (2020)

Would you like more information? Please contact Rosanna Nagtegaal ( r.nagtegaal@uu.nl