This article concerns employment officers' assessments of persons with physical disabilities. The aim was to investigate the assessments made by employment officers of the motivation and ability to obtain, keep, and successfully perform a job, when young women and men, of Swedish and foreign country of birth, seek employment. The study is qualitative and data were collected via interviews supported by the vignette method. The respondents were eight employment officers working in employment offices in a large and a medium-sized municipality in Sweden. The results show that the employment officers assess the job seekers born in a foreign country (Iran) as less motivated to find a job and less motivated to work compared to those born in Sweden. The results also show that the applicants born in a foreign country are recommended to seek less-qualified jobs, and that women born in Sweden are recommended for more professional assistance and support to further education than other applicants. The study reveals the existence of negative ethnic discrimination in employment officers' assessments of employment prospects for persons with physical disabilities and indicates that improvements may be needed in the officers' understanding of how unconscious stereotypical expectations concerning disabilities, gender and ethnicity can affect their assessments and decisions. It is suggested that careful consideration should be given to whether pedagogic models that have been used in other contexts, for instance education, could be used as a complement in the management of cases in order to detect biases in assessments.


This article concerns Swedish employment officers' assessments of employment prospects for persons with physical disabilities. In Sweden, the National Employment Services provide job placement services for all Swedish residents, and employment officers are the employee group responsible for handling direct contacts with job seekers and employers. Their main task is to bring job seekers together with employers, and one of their duties is to give priority to applicants who have particular difficulty finding jobs, such as persons with disabilities (Arbetsförmedlingen 2014). In this study, the term disabilities is used as an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations or participation restrictions (World Health Organization 2001).

Research shows that persons with disabilities generally face more difficulties in their lives than other groups (Jolly 2000; Barnes & Mercer 2005; Dag 2006). Such difficulties or "barriers" can be located both in the individual and society. In previous studies, Dag (2004, 2006) has identified two main categories of barriers that significantly affect the employment situation of persons with disabilities that mutually influence each other. The first category consists of personal barriers, that is, factors that can be attributed to the individual. These comprise for instance degree of disability, level of education, personal attitudes, or daily tasks that demand time and mental energy (cf. Barnes & Mercer 2005). The second category consists of societal barriers, that is, factors that can be attributed to the social or physical environment. These include for instance poor adaptation of the physical environment at the workplace and employers' negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities (see Thornton & Lunt 1997; Barnes, Mercer & Shakespeare 1999; Bricourt & Bentley 2000; Reynolds, Nicholls & Alferoff 2001). The above-mentioned barriers result in men and women with disabilities, to a greater extent than others, being excluded from one of the most important sectors of society: working life. Some of these societal barriers are linked with the structural discrimination that exists in Sweden as well as other societies.

Both positive and negative structural discrimination can occur in a society, but most of the research concerning the labor market relates specifically to negative discrimination. Positive discrimination occurs when extraordinary employment opportunities are given (intentionally or unintentionally) to disadvantaged or advantaged groups, such as persons with disabilities or immigrant status or white men, thereby giving particular groups better chances than others in some particular areas (Momm & Geiecker 1998). Negative structural discrimination usually is taken to refer to a situation where prevailing rules and regulations, systems of norms, and power structures lead (intentionally or unintentionally) to systematically worse opportunities for some groups when seeking jobs (cf. De los Reyes 2008). Such biases can be manifested, for instance, in treatment by employment officers who have preconceptions about job applicants' motivation or capacity to work. In Sweden, as in many other Western countries, discrimination in employment on the basis of such things as disability, ethnicity or gender is forbidden by law. This is regulated in the Discrimination Act, which covers the relationship between employers and employees (Göransson 2011).

Research shows prevailing negative discrimination in labor force participation with respect to disability, ethnicity and gender. Studies of employers' attitudes towards employing persons with disabilities, for instance, reveal that negative attitudes, fear of labor suits, and extra costs function as barriers to hiring persons with disabilities (Kaye, Jans & Jones 2009; Copeland, Chan, Bezyak & Fraser 2010). Similarly, research suggests that, compared to the majority population, persons with different ethnic backgrounds are at high risk of negative discrimination in the labor market (Agerström, Björklund, Carlsson & Rooth, 2012). Research also shows that the labor market situation of persons with disabilities and with immigrant backgrounds are worse than that of the general population (see e.g. Calbucura 2000, Bohlin & Erlandsson 2002). Such research has shown that employers' attitudes toward and knowledge about persons with disabilities and persons of foreign origin can act as barriers for these groups' labor market participation (Kaye, Jans & Jones 2009; Copeland, Chan, Bezyak & Fraser 2010).

However, despite the strategic position that employment officers hold in terms of individuals' access to the labor market, relatively few studies have examined this professions' role in the processes that lead to discrimination. An important aspect, in terms of discrimination, is how employment officers, like social insurance officers and other welfare professionals, perform a "gatekeeper" function when assessing the work capacity of persons with disabilities (cf. Ydreborg, Ekberg & Nilsson 2007).

To determine whether and how disability, gender, and ethnicity overlap and interact with each other and adversely affect the lives of persons with physical disabilities when they come in contact with employment officers, an intersectional perspective can be employed (see Lykke 2007; De los Reyes & Mulinari 2005; Söder 2009). The concept of intersectionality can be useful for showing when and how persons generate stereotypical representations about different categories of people, and how these representations come into play when power is exercised power in various ways. An intersectional analysis can be carried out in at least two different ways. The first way elucidates difference and how various categories are considered relevant under certain conditions but not others. One way of examining this can be to show how employment officers, social workers, and other professionals take notice of certain characteristics and treat them as relevant in their assessments of clients' work capacity when they are understood as persons with disabilities but not when they are categorized simply as women or men. Another way that intersectional analysis can be applied is in examining how different types of categories so to speak compound each other in the making of assessments. For example, intersectionality can be used to demonstrate how multiple categories such as gender, ethnicity, and so on generate increasingly skewed assessments. In this study our ambition is to apply both of the forms of intersectional analysis described here.

The aim of the study is to investigate the assessments made by employment officers of the ability to obtain, keep, and successfully perform a job, when young women and men with physical disabilities, of Swedish and of foreign birth, seek employment. The study focuses on wheelchair users as a particular group of persons with physical disabilities.

Previous research

Research show that persons with disabilities experience long-term unemployment and early retirement to a greater extent than other groups, which may indicate the existence of negative structural discrimination against them (Barnes, Mercer & Shakespeare 1999; Bricourt & Bentley 2000; Jolly 2000; Reynolds, Nicholls & Alferoff 2001; Barnes & Mercer 2005). Factors that can further worsen the employment opportunities for persons with disabilities are their gender and ethnic background. Almost one-fifth of Sweden's population (19%) are of foreign origin, if one includes second-generation immigrants (Statistics Sweden 2009a). Research show that persons with immigrant status often have a higher degree of unemployment and isolation, and poorer mental and physical health (Sundquist 1998; Statistics Sweden, 2009a) than the population as a whole. Research also indicates that foreign-born persons are significantly more likely than persons born in Sweden to be outside the labor force (Statistics Sweden 2009a). The situation is similar in other industrialized countries. In the USA for instance, immigrants who have lived in the country for just a few years have a less secure position in the labor market than those who have lived there for a longer period or have been born in the country (Chiswick, Cohen and Zach 1997). The same study also shows that both higher education level and more work experience have less of a positive effect on employment rates for some immigrant groups (such as those of Asian descent) than for native-born white men. Other research confirms that persons with immigrant backgrounds have a poorer labor market situation than natives. Li (2010) shows for example that ethnic minority groups in both the UK and the USA have significantly more difficulty obtaining a job, despite having a higher educational level than others. The study shows that the most disadvantaged groups are Black African and Pakistani/Bangladeshi in the UK, and African American, Hispanic and Mexican in the USA. Non-disabled white men and women in both countries have the highest rates of employment and the lowest rates of unemployment according to Li (2010).

A similar situation also applies to persons with disabilities who are born abroad. Research shows that foreign-born persons with disabilities are outside the labor market to a greater extent than those born in Sweden (Calbucura, 2000; Bohlin & Erlandsson, 2002). De los Reyes (2008) argues that this kind of negative employment discrimination can affect anyone lacking the attributes possessed by a so called "idealized citizen." Studies supporting this thesis show, among other things, that persons with Swedish-sounding names are called for employment interviews to a greater extent (in Sweden) than those with Arabic-sounding names (Arai, Schröder, Skogman & Thoursie 2006; Carlsson & Rooth 2006; Agerström, Björklund, Carlsson & Rooth, 2012). Arai and Skogman Thoursie (2007) also show, using data on persons who have changed their name in the years 1991—2000, that whether the name is Swedish or foreign sounding affects the person's wages. Changing an Asian, African or Slavic-sounding name to a Swedish-sounding one leads to a significantly better wages for the employee. In addition, De los Reyes (2008) shows that physical appearance and clothing can serve as social-markers that trigger negative discrimination in the labor market. As a contrast to all this evidence of negative structural discrimination, there is also some evidence that under certain circumstances, having an immigrant background can lead to positive discrimination in employment contexts. In a Swedish study of unconscious stereotypical discrimination, the respondents (political studies students and trainee employment officers) assessed two vignettes describing a person who had been assigned a job by the employment office that he did not want to take. The results reveal that the respondents showed more sympathy towards Carlos (a name indicating foreign birth) than Karl (a name indicating having been born in Sweden). A greater proportion of the respondents thought that Carlos should be allowed to decline the job assigned to him than thought the same in the case of Karl (Esaiasson & Ribbhagen 2006).

When it comes to negative discrimination based on gender, research indicates that professionals' stereotypical gender-based expectations regarding women's and men's characteristics and behaviors can lead to biases. For example, research shows that in conversations and assessments, social workers often associate various needs more closely with women or men respectively. Studies have found that assessments of unemployed women's and men's situations more often highlight the need for employment and education when the job-seeker is a man, and more closely associate a need to accept low-wage or unpaid work, better social support and a functioning social network with women (Kullberg 2004, 2005, 2006; Kullberg & Fäldt 2008; Fäldt & Kullberg 2012a).


The researchers conducted qualitative interviews with employment officers, using a standardized vignette to help guide the interview. Qualitative interviewing was chosen in order to elicit rich descriptions of the barriers that respondents believe persons with physical disabilities face in the labor market, as well as what opportunities they have to find a job. The vignette method was chosen to provide the informants with a uniform contextualization of the questions being investigated, and in order to make the respondents' answers easier to compare with each other (cf. Barter & Reynold 1999; Kullberg & Brunnberg 2007).

Population and sample

In Sweden there are a total 320 local Swedish Public Employment Service offices (Sw. Arbetsförmedlingen) where approximately 6,175 employment officers work (Fölster & Sahlén 2010). The sample consists of employment officers working at two different local offices in two different municipalities: one large (by Swedish standards) municipality, with 137,000 inhabitants, and one medium-sized municipality with 56,000 inhabitants (Statistics Sweden 2013). Altogether eight officers participated, four from each type of municipality. Five of the participants were women and three were men. All respondents were between 31 and 47 years of age. All had studied at college or university level. One had taken diverse courses without earning a degree, while the other seven had different degrees: two officers had completed a behavioral science program, one had a teaching credential, one had a degree in political science, one had a bachelor's degree, and one had degrees in both law and social work. At the time of the study, all eight were working full-time with various forms of unemployment assistance (including wage subsidies, employment training, trainee positions) for persons with disabilities. No other background information (e.g. concerning ethnicity) about the employment officers was collected.

The participants were selected through purposive sampling. Contact was made with the manager of the two employment agencies in the two municipalities. The managers suggested employees with experience of working with persons with disabilities. The managers then provided the researchers with contact details for the officers who showed an interest in the study. The aim of the study was presented and partly explained to both to the managers and the employment officers. Both before and during the interviews it was made clear that the study aimed at investigating employment officers' assessments of the presented cases, without explicitly mentioning the researchers' interest in how their assessments reflected possible biases or stereotypes regarding disability, ethnicity and gender.

The design, contents, and use of the vignette

The vignette used in the study is based on knowledge gained from previous studies on the social situation of persons with disabilities, in particular with regard to employment difficulties (see e.g. Statistics Sweden 2009b; Dag 2006; Barnes, Mercer & Shakespeare 1999; Russell 1998; Gustavsson 1998). The living situation of the person in the vignette was designed to resemble as closely as possible an authentic situation that a person with physical disabilities might face. The vignette was also designed to be short (200 words), easy to read, and realistic, as well as to have a logical structure. The vignette contained the following information:

X is 23 years old. Five years ago s/he was in a car accident where s/he collided head-on with another car. S/he was injured so severely that that s/he became a wheelchair user after the accident. This injury has reduced his/her ability to look for a job on his/her own. X dropped out of high school because of the injury and doesn't believe s/he is capable of studying for a high school equivalency certificate. It is difficult for him/her to manage on his/her own outside of the home. The accident has not however affected his/her intellectual capacity. Now that X lives on his/her own and is no longer surrounded by family s/he sometimes feels lonely. The fact that s/he has lost contact with old friends feels more tangible now, and because the injury makes it hard for him/her to meet new people s/he is worried about becoming even more isolated. X also lacks workmates because s/he is unemployed. S/he thinks it is important to have a job, and is actively looking for one, both through the employment services and through his/her own efforts; that is to say, s/he tries to take independent contact with employers who have advertised job openings in the social services listings. X has asked about possibilities to work from home, and would prefer to work part-time.

The vignette was employed in a 2x2 design. This means that the vignette consisted of four different versions. The case presented in the vignette referred to a person living in Sweden and was varied in terms of whether the person's name implied a female or male gender and whether it implied Swedish or a foreign country of birth. Swedish birth was represented by the names Mats (male) and Lisa (female) and foreign birth was represented by the names Reza (male) and Leila (female). In the vignettes the country of birth of Mats and Lisa was not mentioned. The intention behind this was that the respondents should assume that they were born in Sweden, since the study concerned Swedish conditions and both of these names are typically Swedish. In the case of Reza and Leila, it was mentioned in the text that they were born in a foreign country, namely Iran. The choice of foreign names and country of birth was done in order to stimulate ideas about people with a different cultural background than a narrowly European one (and to imply having a background in the Middle East).

In presenting the results, the respondents who assessed the Swedish applicants are designated as Swedish Female 1 or 2 and Swedish Male 1 or 2. Those who assessed the applicants with foreign country of birth are designated Foreign Female 1 or 2 and Foreign Male 1 or 2.

Interview guide and procedure

The first seven questions in the interview guide concerned the interviewees' background. General questions concerning the situation for a person with a physical disability then followed. The answers to these questions are not included in this article. The majority of questions concerned how the respondents assessed the situation for the person in the vignette. These questions, which are included in the current study, concerned the employment officer's assessment of the client's capacity to handle a job, the client's effort and motivation to find a job, the client's capacity to personally find and keep a job, and the jobs or occupations considered suitable for the client.

The study was carried out at the respondents' places of work. In both cities all four versions of the vignette were used. Which version of the vignette was given to which of the four employment officers in each city was selected randomly. The employment officers were interviewed after they had read through the vignette. All interviews lasted 45—60 minutes and were digitally recorded.


The analysis was performed using conventional content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon 2005). Transcriptions of the interviews were read through in their entirety, and those parts of the interviews that could be sorted under the main themes of the study were categorized. The research questions of the study formed the basis for the categorization of themes and the material was categorized on the basis of the three dimensions: disability, ethnicity and gender. After doing the initial categorizations the data was reduced by employing meaning condensation to construct the categories described in the results section (Kvale 1996). The first author was responsible for the initial coding and data reduction. The codings were then compared, discussed, and further refined at multiple joint data sessions with the second author.

Validity and reliability

The vignette was based on findings from previous studies of the living situation for people with disabilities and their employment difficulties. This made the story realistic, which increases the study's validity (see Jergeby 1999). The validity of the instrument was also improved by testing the vignette on an employment officer who works with persons with disabilities. Possible ambiguities mentioned by the test person were corrected in the vignette narrative as well as in the interview guide. To further ensure the validity, investigator triangulation (meaning joint coding of the material, as described above) was employed. Fellow researchers (in social work) have also reviewed the methodological approach and analytical instruments at a seminar held during the research process.

The cases were designed to be relatively short, easy to understand, and logical, which has enhanced reliability. A further factor enhancing the reliability of the study is that using a vignette method gave the interviews a more uniform structure than otherwise might be the case in qualitative interviews. Furthermore, all the interviews were conducted by the same person (one of the authors). This also contributed to improving the reliability. All interviews proceeded in a similar manner and none of the interviewed persons asked any specific questions about the data mentioned in the vignette, or the people who appeared in them.


Table 1 summarizes the respondents' answers in terms of the five themes that emanated from the analysis. The themes are: 1) motivation to work, 2) own efforts to find employment, 3) suitable intervention, 4) suitable job or occupation, and 5) likelihood of finding and retaining employment.

As Table 1 shows, some differences are apparent in how the employment officers assess the employment prospects of the applicants depending on country of birth (Iran or Sweden) and name. and their employment prospects, but there are also certain issues where no or only small differences can be discerned.

Table 1 shows that the employment officers assess those with foreign names as less motivated to seek employment than those with Swedish names. The table also shows that the officers considers the applicants with Swedish names to be trying harder to find work. Furthermore, the employment officers have a tendency to propose training measures for those with Swedish names and to propose work of a simple character (such as office and service jobs) for those with foreign names.

Table 1. Employment officers' assessments of physically disabled people's relationship to the labor market
ThemesThe physically disabled person
Foreign country of birthSwedish
Motivation to find gainful employmentLittle or no motivationLittle or no motivationIs motivatedIs motivated
Own effort to find gainful employmentInsufficient effort or none at allInsufficient effort or none at allSufficient effortSufficient effort
Suitable interventionsSupport for assistive devices, Support for personal assistantTailored activities, motivational activitiesNeeds to complete upper-secondary educationEducation followed by an internship
Suitable job or occupationClerical, administration, serviceAdministration in association or non-profit organizationNeeds further studiesComputer programmer or software developer
Likelihood of finding and retaining employmentNeeds public assistance and supportNeeds public assistance and supportNeeds to improve level of educationNeeds public assistance and support

No systematic differences in answers were apparent in the assessments made by the officers based on their age, gender, educational background or whether they worked in a medium-sized or large municipality.

Disability and Ethnicity: Motivation

Female and male with foreign country of birth

All four officers evaluating the cases with foreign country of birth assess the person's motivation to work to be lower than those of Swedish birth.

I think that the desire and motivation do exist, but I think this is a person who's become rather timid and disheartened by what's happened. She's had it [the injury] for five years now. Been physical disabled for five years because of this, and dropped out of high school, and fallen behind. I believe the drive exists, but what we have is a case of not believing in one's ability. (Foreign female 1)

I think that his motivation and desire are rather low at the moment. He lacks motivation, he lacks the drive, so it's low at present. (Foreign male 2)

I don't know anything about that either… she's becoming isolated. She may be depressed. Perhaps she needs to work through the crisis; she's 23 years old and in a wheelchair. She might have a great deal of motivation, but she's depressed. So it might also be difficult for her to make new contacts. Sure, she's motivated, I think so, but she's unhappy. (Foreign female 2)

As can be seen in the excerpts above, the employment officers assessing the cases of foreign born applicants focus more on the person's disability and less on his or her desire and efforts to get a job. The employment officer Foreign Male 1 says, for example, "I believe this person needs help and support to get out," without mentioning the person's personal motivation. None of the officers pays attention to the fact that the person is actually looking for and wants to find a job. For instance, the employment officer evaluating the case with a foreign female (see Foreign Female 1, above) claims to believe that the person is motivated, yet nevertheless describes the person as "timid and disheartened" as a result of the car accident she was involved in. One of the other officers (see Foreign Male 2, above) does not believe the person to be motivated at all. Yet another of the officers (see Foreign Female 2, above) views the person in the case as depressed and isolated, but at the same time seems to have at least some faith in her motivation. However, despite this she believes that the applicant must get over her depression before she will be able to return to work.

Swedish female and male

In contrast to the case presented above, the data show that all four officers who assessed the cases with the Swedish male or female assessed the person to have desire and motivation to work. In other words, they emphasize the person's actions and efforts to find a job.

Yes, it's quite high, I think so… I definitely think she has a strong desire and motivation, but even more fear. That's what I think. (Swedish female 1)

Yes, but she's done what she believes is right… asked about the possibility to work from home. That is somehow… well it indicates a certain motivation anyhow. (Swedish female 2)

It's quite large, or middling, because he's actively searching. He's searching ads and employers, so he's motivated. He doesn't need anyone to provide extra support… it says he's actively looking. He's using the job center and making his own efforts, and that shows desire and that he's motivated. (Swedish male 2)

As the excerpts show, the employment officers evaluating cases with a Swedish applicant focus on the person's own efforts when assessing his or her motivation and desire to work. One of the officers (see Swedish Female 1, above) says that the person's level of motivation is quite high. Another officer (see Swedish Female 2, above) highlights the person's wish to work from home, judging that to be a sign of motivation. Yet another (see Swedish Male 2, above) highlights the person's efforts to find a job. The respondent justifies this with the fact that the person is in contact with the job center and contacts employers to find work. These actions seem to be taken as evidence of motivation and desire to work. The fourth officer (Swedish Male 1) says that the person is certainly doing her/his best and "it is difficult to question the person's motivation."

Disability and Ethnicity: Own Efforts

As can be seen in Table 1, the results show that in the cases where the job seeker has a foreign country of birth, the person's own efforts are downplayed in the employment officers' assessments, and that this is not the case when the applicant is Swedish.

Female and male with foreign country of birth

All respondents assessing the cases with foreign-born applicants, regardless of the gender, believe that the applicant is not making sufficient efforts to find a job. In fact, none of the four officers assessing the cases even mentions that the person is making an effort and instead focuses on potential personal barriers for the persons breaking into the labor market. This type of assessment of persons with foreign country of birth can be exemplified by the respondent in the excerpt Foreign Female 1, below, who believes that the female job seeker needs to make more of an effort to find a job.

I believe she could try harder, so to speak, to find a job. (Foreign female 1)

The officer Foreign Female 1 also says that society "pampers" persons with physical disabilities, causing them to become somewhat "lazy". The respondent also associates the person's wishing to work from home with laziness. Another respondent (see the excerpt Foreign Female 2, below) also does not view the applicant in question as looking for a job. This employment officer explains his or her assessment by saying that the person in question is isolating herself and needs to meet a social worker to break her isolation. In connection with this, the same officer continues, saying:

I fail to see how she can be looking [for a job]. (Foreign female 2)

Swedish female and male

Unlike how the efforts of the individuals are assessed by respondents when the job seeker is a woman or man with foreign country of birth, the employment officers assessing the cases with the Swedish man or a women are satisfied with his or her efforts to find a job. This applies regardless of the gender of the person in the vignette, and can be exemplified by the following excerpt:

Yes, she's registered with us. She's trying to get in touch with employers on her own. She can consider the option to work from home… yes, I think so. She's been doing the right things. She's making an effort, I think so. (Swedish female 2)

From the above excerpt (see Swedish female 2) it can be seen that the respondent considers the person to be making an adequate effort to find a job. The respondent conveys this by saying that she has "done the right things" and "made an effort". The answers also suggest that the respondent in this case does not consider the person's wish to find a job that can be performed from home a sign of low desire to find employment. This is in contrast to how the female job seeker with a foreign country of birth (Foreign female 1) in the previous excerpt is assessed.

The respondent in the case Swedish Male 2 also considers the male job seeker to be making adequate efforts to find a job.

He has never worked. He didn't even finish high school, but he is actively looking for a job anyway, both at the job center and through his contacts, by making phone calls; and he calls employers and searches ads. I consider him active. (Swedish male 2)

As indicated by the above excerpt, the respondent (Swedish Male 2) assesses the person in the vignette as making an effort both by taking advantage of the help and support available at the job center and by taking personal contact with different employers.

Disability and Ethnicity: Suitable Interventions

When it comes to what type of intervention the employment officers consider most suitable the results also indicate that ethnicity affects the results.

Female and male with foreign country of birth

The interviews show that all the officers who assess the applicants with a foreign country of birth emphasize the importance of interventions such as work capacity assessments, tailored activities, work training, motivational activities, and wage subsidies. This is illustrated by the assessments made by the respondents (see the excerpts below).

Internships are a way to get a foot in the door, to get a discussion going about the possibility of being hired, and then about support and assistance. So you start by just going in, and if it's not enough you make adjustments with wage subsidies. (Foreign male 1)

What's missing here, above all, are activities at a very basic level. Tailored activities, motivational activities, and preparatory work training; that this person, during work training, it's like a trial, you try out this job, and the employer receives additional compensation, that is to say, support in the form of a personal assistant or a subsidy. (Foreign male 2)

It had to make an assessment when you don't know more than this. An internship could definitely be a good thing. (Foreign female 1)

A work capacity assessment is what I would recommend in that case, to test what she can and can't manage. (Foreign female 2)

These excerpts clearly show that the employment officers consider a number of concrete interventions, which could be interpreted as activities at a basic level, rather than suggesting further education to help a foreign born person enter the job market.

Swedish female and male

Unlike those who assess the applicants with a foreign country of birth, the officers asked to suggest a suitable intervention for the Swedish man and woman all recommend some form of education, for example completing high school, or some form of vocational training, as the most urgent interventions.

I think she needs to finish high school first. That's outside our area, but I'm sure we can contribute somehow. After that, I think that an internship, assistive devices, a personal assistant, wage subsidy, and a work-program position are the things that could be in line for her. Job-market orientation, work training, or sheltered employment are things I wouldn't recommend. (Swedish female 1)

Job-market orientation to get her on the job track. And she doesn't have to only take the job-market orientation. There are more training courses in other places. (Swedish female 2)

I think it has to do with the person, what kind of attitude he has, and what kind of person he is, and things like that. Like with everyone else. But then, of course, his physical disability is an obstacle; it creates extra problems. Finding work, it's tough. He has to get more education and live up to employers' demands.

Okay, he has no education… so we send the person for training, and afterwards we can look at an internship at a workplace. And during the internship he can receive support for assistive devices. (Swedish male 2)

As can be seen in the above excerpts, the employment officers who were asked to assess the job seekers born in Sweden tended to a greater degree to focus on education or training as an initial intervention.

Disability and Ethnicity: A Suitable Job or Occupation

The respondents' answers to the question of what job or occupation they consider suitable for the person in the vignette are summarized in Table 1. Here too, a difference can be seen between assessments of the Swedish applicants and applicants with foreign place of birth.

Female and male with foreign country of birth

The interviews show that officers assessing the applicants with a foreign country of birth recommend various occupations that do not require any form of higher education.

Heavy warehouse work might not be optimal for him. Instead something to do with clerical work within an association or a non-profit organization [would be more suitable]. (Foreign male 1)

In general I think, it depends on where her interests lie, what she's interested in and so on, but she definitely ought to be able to do office work, administrative work or work in service occupations. I think it depends a lot on how severe, what kind of physical disability it is, of course. I think there'd be problems on a construction site, for example, or with heavier jobs. That wouldn't be possible. (Foreign female 1)

As can be seen in the excerpts above, the officers assessing foreign born applicants suggest occupations that do not require any further education (office work, administrative work, work in service occupations or in non-profit organization).

Swedish female and male

Unlike the assessments of applicants with foreign country of birth, the employment officers who assess the Swedish female emphasize above all the importance of education. According to them, completing high school can lead to higher education.

Of course there are a number of occupations she won't be able to handle because she's confined to a wheelchair, but if she keeps studying she could have any professional occupation at all, anything from medical school to engineering, or whatever. (Swedish female 1)

The above excerpt makes it clear that the officer who is asked to assess the case (Swedish female 1) stresses the importance of education, and believes that this could open the door, as the officer puts it, to "any professional occupation at all".

The employment officers who assessed the Swedish male (Swedish Male 1 below), like those who assessed the ones with foreign country of birth, also gave recommendations for suitable occupations and did not mention education as a suitable preparation for the labor market.

It could be… he's wheelchair-bound, so it could be a job as a programmer or software developer, administration. What else can one say, well, a job that doesn't require him to move around freely. (Swedish male 1)

As can be seen in the excerpt, the employment officers who assessed the Swedish man recommend two occupations that usually offer a good salary and in some instances require a college degree ("programmer" or "software developer"), but also mention "administration" which can be interpreted as such less demanding tasks as simple office work involves. As already mentioned, this is in contrast to officers assessing the cases with applicants born in a foreign country, who instead only suggest occupations that do not require higher education.

Disability, Ethnicity, and Gender: Likelihood of Finding and Retaining Employment

Swedish male, foreign female and male

The results clearly show that officers who assess the individuals with a foreign country of birth consider them to have little chance of finding and keeping a job. These officers emphasize that public assistance and support, for example from the job center, can improve their possibility of finding work. The officers Swedish Male 1 and Foreign Female 1 both stress the importance of support from above all the job center, to enable the applicant to both find and keep a job.

The important thing is for him to get the prerequisites for finding a job. For a person in a wheelchair, there are unfortunately many, many obstacles in society. You need to try to make the most of it, improve his chances. You can do that through various interventions from the job center. (Swedish male 1)

I think they're not very good, actually. I think her chances are not good to find a job on her own. I'm sure she could find a job if she received public assistance and support. She needs help from society, to be able to find and keep a job. So that's what I think, to find a job and keep it, a job. She could do it. She could also support herself if she found a job and earned a salary, and then the social side of it would somehow [also get better], with friends and family and acquaintances. (Foreign female 1)

Swedish female

The respondents who assess the vignette with the Swedish female, unlike those who assess the Swedish male or the man and woman with foreign country of birth, stress the importance of education in finding and keeping a job.

I actually think she could do well if she completes high school, and maybe goes on to further studies. Gets a handle on things that she undoubtedly would have taken care of if she hadn't been injured. So therefore I definitely believe she could find a job and keep a job just fine. (Swedish female 1)

As the above excerpt shows, the employment officer who assesses the Swedish female is optimistic about the female applicant, and ascribes a high value to education, emphasizing its significance for how well the person will manage in society. During the conversation, the officer Swedish Female 1 is particularly anxious to stress the importance of studies. The officer says, for example, that if the applicant gets her high school diploma and goes on to higher studies, then she will have good chances of finding and retaining a job.


The aim was to investigate the assessments made by employment officers of the ability to obtain, keep, and successfully perform a job, when young women and men of Swedish and foreign country of birth with physical disabilities, seek employment. The study has focused on wheelchair users as a particular group of persons with physical disabilities.

In the introduction we stated that intersectional analysis can be carried out in at least two different ways: to elucidate difference, namely to clarify whether, and if so to what extent, different categorizations come into play in certain situations but not in others; and to show how biases and stereotypes related to different types of categories compound each other when people make assessments of others. The results in the present study illustrate both of these aspects.

With regard to the intersection between physical disability and ethnicity, the results show that employment officers consider the applicants with foreign country of birth to be less motivated to work than persons born in Sweden. This was independent of officers' gender, age, and education level, or the municipality where they work. The results also show that when dealing with the persons of foreign birth the employment officers ascribed less significance to their efforts to find a job than when dealing with persons born in Sweden. An additional distinguishing characteristic when it comes to ethnicity is that the officers assessing the persons with a foreign country of birth were more inclined to recommend supportive interventions such as assistive devices, tailored activities, and motivational activities. This was in contrast to officers assessing the persons born in Sweden, who primarily emphasized the person's need for education in the form of completing high school, or some form of vocational training, when recommending interventions.

Regarding the intersection between the dimensions of physical disability, ethnicity and gender, the results for what job or occupation can be suitable for the person show that employment officers assessing the woman born in Sweden stressed the importance of education in finding a job, while the employment officers who assessed the Swedish male tended to recommend two occupations that usually give a good salary and in some instances require a college degree ("programmer" or "software developer") but also mentioned the less demanding occupational task "administration.", which may be interpreted as implying such less demanding tasks that more simple clerical work, or service jobs involve. This is in contrast to those who assessed the applicants with foreign country of birth. In these cases the employment officers considered various types of menial jobs to be suitable instead, such as office work, administrative work or work in a non-profit organization. The officers were also more inclined to stress the importance of education in being able to find and keep a job when assessing the woman born in Sweden. In contrast to this the officers did not mention the importance of education in the cases of the Swedish male and those with a foreign country of birth. Instead, they stressed the importance of assistance and support from the job center.

The results show that ethnicity and gender are significant in assessments made of individuals with Swedish or foreign country of birth, and to some extent also of women and men. An important question is how these results should be interpreted and whether the results of the study indicate negative or positive discrimination of persons who in some way diverge from expected norms concerning physical functioning, ethnicity, or gender. This question is not as straightforward to answer as it seems. On the one hand, the officers' assessments of the persons with foreign country of birth as being less motivated to work and as making less of an effort to find a job than the persons born in Sweden clearly indicate negative ethnic discrimination, and can also be expected to negatively influence what interventions the officers are willing to offer to help the applicants find a job. On the other hand, there is no evidence in the data that the assessments of the applicants with foreign country of birth as being less motivated to work and making less of an effort to find a job actually lead to worse interventions or support. Hypothetically it could actually mean that the officers would be willing to positively discriminate, to provide more help and support in finding a job to immigrants with physical disabilities than to Swedes in the same situation. However, as no questions were asked about the actual workload that the employment officer would have been willing to take on in order to find jobs for the different people in the vignettes, no results exist that can indicate positive discrimination. Instead the results concerning officers' assessments of foreign persons as being less motivated and as making less of an effort to find a job appear to correspond with previous studies on people with disabilities and people with immigrant background and their weaker connection to and worse prospects in the labor market, as well as with previous research on negative discrimination based on country of birth and disability (Jolly, 2000; Barnes and Mercer 2005; De los Reyes 2008). The results concerning motivation to work and efforts to find a job can therefore with some caution be assumed to be examples of how systematic biases in employment officers' assessments can lead to negative treatment of people with disabilities and immigrant background.

The results of the present study show that the employment officers are inclined to recommend less qualified jobs to persons with physical disabilities and foreign country of birth. These results agree with previous research (see introduction) showing that persons with immigrant background more commonly have jobs that do not correspond to their qualifications. Being referred by the job center to jobs that do not require higher education can lead to a worse employment situation and lower salary level than what others obtain who are referred to jobs requiring higher education or who are referred to further studies. In other words, this tendency can cautiously be interpreted as an ingredient of the phenomenon of negative ethnic discrimination.

The results showing that employment officers were more likely to stress the importance of education as a basis for finding a job in those cases where the person with a disability was a Swedish woman can also be discussed in terms of other available data. These findings are not entirely in line with other previous studies however. Statistics namely show that women make up two-thirds of those who annually graduate from higher education (Statistics Sweden 2011) and similar figures also apply to people with foreign countries of birth (Swedish National Agency for Education 2008). Figures also show that more women with disabilities have university-level education than corresponding men (36 percent of the women, as opposed to 24 percent of the men) (Statistics Sweden 2009b). The differences in the employment officers' assessments of women and men regarding appropriate training are in line with what can be expected on the basis of the data presented above. The results showing that the officers made different assessments of the foreign and Swedish-born women, and were more inclined to provide support for further education to the Swedish-born woman than to the woman born in a foreign country, are somewhat more surprising. This is because one would expect, on the basis of the presented data, both categories of women to receive the same level of support.


In total only eight employment officers participated in the study, and limited data was collected on their background. This limits the possibility to make more elaborate analyses and generalize the results. Another circumstance that may have influenced the results is that when the aim of the study was presented to managers and participating employment officers, it was never made completely clear that the study aimed to specifically focus on aspects of gender and ethnicity. The reason for this was to avoid answers considered appropriate or self-censored answers that participants might otherwise have given. Possible discriminatory processes in the respondents' work can be considered to be a highly sensitive topic, and guarded responses might have seriously distorted the results. Although the aim of the study was partly kept secret, it cannot be entirely ruled out that the participants sensed that it was touching on a sensitive topic. This may have led to their being "on alert" and to some extent correcting their answers to the questions.

A further methodological limitation that should be kept in mind is that assessing cases by merely reading a short case description, as was done in the study by using vignettes, and making assessments without meeting clients face to face, is far from the standard procedure in employment officers' work with unemployed persons with disabilities. In light of this, there is a certain degree of uncertainty about whether the results obtained can be generalized to employment officers' daily work.

A further methodological limitation that should be taken into account when considering the possibility to make generalizations from the results is that the people in the vignettes for persons born in a foreign country were said to be from Iran. Iran is part of the Middle East, and the results for employment officers' assessments of employment prospects may be applicable to other groups from the same region. At the same time it should be noted that different immigrant groups have at least partially different conditions in the countries to which they immigrate. Most of Sweden's immigrants from Iran came in the 1970s and 1980s and have a relatively better position in the labor market than other groups from the Middle East who came at a later time. This may have implications for the possibility to generalize the study's results to other groups.


The study reveals the occurrence of negative ethnic discrimination in employment officers' assessments of employment prospects for persons with physical disabilities. The existence of unconscious stereotypical expectations is not in any way unique to employment officers as an occupational group, but has rather been found to apply to broad professional groups, for example social workers and physicians (see e.g. Fäldt & Kullberg 2012b; Risberg 2004). Even so, employment officers, like other helping professionals, are expected to carry out their work in accordance with anti-discriminatory practice. Improvements may therefore be needed in the officers' understanding of how unconscious stereotypical expectations concerning disability, gender and ethnicity can affect their assessments and decisions. Consequently there is reason to carefully consider whether pedagogic models can be used to complement the management of cases in order to detect biases in the assessments made. This could for instance be done by reassessing authentic cases that have been closed, or by using vignettes with fictive cases in group discussions in order to detect biases and generate greater awareness of stereotypes that exist among the employment officers. Such pedagogic models have been used with good results in educational environments to enhance students' critical thinking abilities (see Chau, Chang, Lee, Ip, Lee and Wootton. 2001).

The authors are grateful to the Norrbacka-Eugenia Foundation in Sweden whose support made the research possible. The authors also wish to thank the anonymous reviewer for very valuable comments.


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