The United States Department of Labor created the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability (VSD) form in 2014 to improve the employment rate for people with disabilities. As part of this initiative, federal contractors with 50 or more employees are expected to have at least 7% of their workforce identify as having a disability. Unfortunately, only 13% of organizations met this goal in 2015. By conducting a survey of 472 individuals, the present study examined how people with and without disabilities interpret the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability (VSD) form during the job application process. Specifically, respondents inferred positive (e.g., accommodations), negative (e.g., discrimination), neutral (e.g., person-job fit), and conflicting interpretations (e.g., a mix of positive and negative interpretations) of the VSD form. Further, nearly 60 percent of applicants perceived the VSD form as a strategy to decrease the number of people with disabilities rather than increase. With insight into organizational signals, employers and policymakers can better design and develop recruitment materials to improve the application process for people with disabilities.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 15% of the world population identifies as having a disability (Disability & Health Fact Sheet, WHO, 2018). People with disabilities (PWDs) comprise roughly 13% of the United States population yet are unemployed at a rate twice that of people without disabilities (Erickson et al., 2018). The employment rate for PWDs is 34% compared to 75% for people without disabilities (PWODs) (Houtenville et al., 2016). Unemployment limits individuals' social opportunities and compromises their economic stability and daily structure (Henry & Luca, 2004; Sheir et al., 2009). Unemployment is directly associated with poverty and social exclusion (World Health Organization & The World Bank, 2011). Long-term, unemployed individuals are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, use alcohol more frequently, and report lower self-esteem and quality of life measures than employed individuals (Dutta et al., 2008; Tansey et al., 2017). Meaningful employment contributes to an individual's health and well-being as it provides opportunities for social inclusion, economic stability, and rehabilitation (Blessing et al., 2012). Employment for PWDs benefits the individual as well as the company. Most PWDs are cost-efficient employees (Cimera, 1998), and exhibit high motivation, productivity, and job retention (Bradshaw, 2004; Hartnett et al., 2011; Houtenville & Kalargyrou, 2012). The underemployment of PWDs is an important social problem that affects individuals who are discriminated against, as well as companies who lack the diverse experiences and perspectives PWDs offer.

To better understand this gap in employment, the present study examined potential barriers PWDs may face during the application process. Non-employed PWDs are as likely to desire a job as their non-disabled counterparts, but less likely to actively pursue a job (Ali, Schur, and Blanck, 2010). According to Kaye et al. (2011), discrimination is a key factor explaining employment discrepancies between those with disabilities and those without during the hiring process. The present study focused on information, referred to as signals, communicated during the job application process to recruit qualified applicants. Specifically, this study examined how individuals, including those without disabilities, perceived a specific signal relevant to PWDs— the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability (VSD) form.

Disability and The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to protect PWDs against discrimination and mandated that employers accommodate workers with disabilities unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Disability is a general term encompassing impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions (ADA, 1990). ADA defines discrimination in employment settings as the (1) denial of a position based on disability for which a person is qualified (Section 101-8), and (2) preventing reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability (Section 101-9).

According to the National Council of Disability, ADA's goals were to ensure PWDs' rights to equality of opportunity and independence (NCD, 1986). With ADA's passage, disability advocates envisioned the act would cease economic marginalization of PWDs and promote equality between employees with and without disabilities (Scotch, 2000). ADA provides a legal framework to combat discrimination and encourages the social goal of cultural and attitudinal acceptance of PWDs, often referred to as the "Spirit of ADA." ADA's passage was expected to engender a culture of compliance and accessibility in private and public sectors (NCD, 1986).

Despite these goals, the United States employment gap between PWDs and PWODs has not drastically narrowed (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). The NCD acknowledges federal policies and programs are not always structured and administered effectively to reflect and advance these goals. "Federal programs and laws that should serve as paths toward this goal have often deviated or even retreated from it" (NCD, 1986, An Assessment of Federal Laws section, para. 2).

To improve federal programs designed to further the goals of equal opportunity and independence, the NCD suggests "more emphasis should be given to federal programs encouraging and assisting private sector efforts to promote opportunities and independence for individuals with disabilities'' (NCD, 1986, An Executive Summary section, para. 2). Silverstein (2000) echoes the NCD's sentiment when he asserts that the principle of equality is comprised of social transformation including "genuine, effective, and meaningful treatment modifications of policies and procedures" (Silverstein, 2000, p. 1717).

The ADA did not include specific policies and procedures to optimally address PWDs' employment disparities. In the next section, we discuss the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability Form, an effort to improve the employment rate of people with disabilities.

The VSD Form

In response to the low PWD employment rate, former President Barack Obama passed Executive Order 13548 (E.O 13548) in 2010. This order requires that federal contractors with more than 50 or more employees meet hiring and retention goals for PWDs. Federal contractors, which include businesses that provide goods or services to or on behalf of the government, are encouraged to ensure at least seven percent of their workforce is comprised of employees with disabilities. The Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) regulations ensure the federal government acts in accordance with section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 503 is a law that prohibits any federal agency from receiving governmental funding to discriminate against individuals with disabilities in employment settings (OFCCP, n.d.).

The VSD form is intended to collect disability information on applicants and current employees to help contractors attain the 7% goal for recruiting and hiring purposes. "The two-page self-identification form provides: (1) information explaining why the applicant or employee is being asked to complete the form; (2) nonexclusive examples of disabilities to help applicants and employees assess whether they have a disability; and (3) information about reasonable accommodation laws" (Bromberg, 2014). When completing the VSD form, applicants must select one of three options for self-identification: 1. Yes, I have a disability, or have a history/record of having a disability; 2. No, I don't have a disability, or have a history/record of having a disability; 3. I don't wish to answer.

Applicants must decide whether they identify as having a disability and whether they choose to disclose said disability on the VSD form. Regardless of the self-identification option applicants select, employers only learn that applicants have a disability. Employers do not receive information regarding the type of disability and how it may influence the employees' performance. Although information from the VSD form can inform employers about the number of disabled individuals in the organization, it provides little practical insight concerning accommodations and procedures. However, as suggested by Young and Kan (2015), "It [VSD form] protects the company from having 'too much' information, which it could potentially be accused of using for discriminatory purposes" (p. 10).

The U.S. Department of Labor's intent is to motivate companies to foster inclusive environments where employees feel safe revealing their disabilities and disclosure does not impede employment. The form's primary purpose is to increase the employment rate of PWDs. According to OFCCP (n.d.), an employer must explicitly state that 1. the information being requested is on a voluntary basis; 2. the information will remain confidential; 3. refusal to self-identify will not result in negative repercussions, and 4. the information will be used in agreement with the ADA and federal laws that require affirmative action (e.g., Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act).

Although the decision to self-identify as an individual with a disability on the VSD form is entirely up to the applicant, employers are increasingly adopting the ADA spirit by encouraging applicants and employees to do so. Self-identifying on the VSD form can lead to hiring and retaining a higher number of qualified PWDs, capitalizing on their unique skill sets and experiences. Employers will also benefit by fostering a diverse and inclusive organization.

As of 2015, however, only 13% of contractors met or exceeded the seven percent quota for employees with disabilities (Young & Kan, 2015). Although not considered a violation, failure to meet this quota should encourage companies to understand why they fell short of the target. The OFCCP (n.d.) asks federal contractors who do not meet this quota to assess whether their organization has any barriers to equal employment opportunities for PWDs and to take the necessary steps to correct them. Because few companies are meeting the quota, a closer look at the VSD form and its outcomes is warranted. Specifically, understanding how individuals perceive the VSD form can provide invaluable insight about the form's effectiveness.

Interpretations of the VSD Form

Many organizations, including Marriott Hotels and Duke University, have adopted the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability (VSD) form in their screening and hiring processes. The Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form invites job applicants to voluntarily disclose whether they currently have or previously have had a physical and/or mental health disability. The VSD form lists 16 health disabilities — 12 physical and four mental—including autism, schizophrenia, and cancer. Organizations also present the form to current employees every five years to provide them the opportunity to disclose a disability (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.).

Since the VSD form's inception in 2014, little research has examined outcomes resulting from its use. Lockhart (2017) found current employees with "invisible" disabilities (e.g., depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder) had different concerns about disclosure on the VSD form than those with visible conditions (e.g., blindness, missing limbs), including their interpersonal relationships and disability identities. Moreover, four of the 10 participants interviewed reported they did not disclose their conditions via the VSD form. The current study extends these findings by examining participants' perceptions of the VSD form when used during the job application process.

Despite limited research, the VSD form has gained media attention. Job seekers have turned to social media to express their confusion, dismay, or approval, providing anecdotal evidence on how people react to the form. Upon analyzing the comments section in a 2016 article titled, "Why You Should Self-Identify If You Have a Disability" and Reddit blog posts (2016), we noted the following remarks in the comment sections:

Comment 1: "It is great that contractors want to know if you are disabled…but what happens when you don't know if you are disabled?"

Comment 2: "There are a few reasons why they might ask about disability. One is for a diversity issue (ex. saying 'X% of our applicants said they are disabled') They also might be trying to short-circuit the issue of whether someone is actually capable of performing a job, but this can be an issue."

Comment 3: "If you offer the information, they MAY use it against you but mask their decision as 'other more qualified candidates…'"

As this anecdotal evidence indicates, the form has generated different questions and interpretations among job seekers. During the application process, the VSD form is an artifact signaling the company's values and priorities, which may be interpreted differently among applicants.

Identification and Disability Modes

Applicants typically must identify with having a disability to indicate they have a disability on the form. An identity includes the "traits and characteristics, social relations, roles, and social group memberships that define who a person is" (Oyserman et al., 2012, p. 69). Young adults with disabilities often do not self-identify as having a disability. Nario Redmond et al. (2013) found that 7–18% of their sample with a disability self-identified as "nondisabled" or "able-bodied."

The field of disability studies primarily favors a "social model" to define disability identity, meaning identity is defined and influenced by structures including legislation and social attitudes (Oliver, 1996; Shakespeare, 2006). Disability scholars distinguish between a medical model that characterizes disability as a functional limitation due to mental or physical impairments and the social model that characterizes disability as a reflection of external barriers and disadvantages (Altman, 2001; Darling & Heckert, 2010; Williams, 2001). The medical model is based partly on the assumption that the experience of disability is inherently negative, and therefore a primary goal for PWDs is to improve or correct their impairments to achieve ''normalcy'' (Linton, 1998). In contrast, the social model recognizes that policies, institutional practices, and physical environments can restrict access for PWDs and elicit systematic discrimination, resulting in disability-related problems (Scotch & Schriner, 1997; Shakespeare, 2006). The social model is often preferred over the medical model as social and cultural factors create universal difficulties for PWDs, regardless of biological characteristics of impairments (Barnes & Mercer, 2001). The social model emphasizes policy efforts to increase economic and social inclusion of PWDs (Schur et al., 2013). For this study, we reference both the medical and social models to understand how PWDs interpret the VSD form.

Disclosing a Disability

Organizational policies that limit flexibility and create negative attitudes among coworkers have been shown to decrease disclosure rates among employees with disabilities (Colella, et al., 2004; Paetzold, et al., 2008). The signals communicated by an organization can discourage PWDs' identification with and disclosure of a disability (Chaudoir & Quinn, 2010; Clair et al., 2005). As a result, individuals who perceive disapproving work environments may conceal a disability (Baldridge & Veiga, 2001). Von Schrader et al. (2014) found that when companies provided explicit support for employees with disabilities during recruitment, the rate of disability disclosure was significantly higher than in organizations without such explicit support. Therefore, an applicant's decision to disclose a disability is a function of internalized beliefs cued by signals in an organization.

Disclosing a disability in the workplace can result in positive outcomes such as desired workplace accommodations and/or social support for the prospective employee. However, it can also lead to negative outcomes including stigmatization, lowered expectations, and isolation from colleagues (Von Schrader et al., 2014). Managing disabilities in the workplace is important because mismanagement can negatively affect productivity, absenteeism, and employee retention (Irvine, 2011). Von Schrader et al. (2011) found 68% of employees reported that seeking an accommodation was a primary reason for divulging their disability. However, their study identified "the risk of not being hired" as a significant factor in dissuading individuals from making requests for workplace accommodations. Unique to the workplace, individuals not only consider personal risks involved with disclosure, but also professional risks. Disclosure represents a fine balance between receiving social support and accommodations on the one hand and fearing negative consequences that inhibit it on the other. The stigma associated with a chronic health disability might devalue the individual's identity in the workplace. Thus, identity management, defined by Toth and Dewa (2014) as "the strict control of information related to the stigmatizing attribute" (p. 733), is critical for individuals who wish to maintain a reputable identity in the organization. In the context of this study, an organization's use of the VSD form may signal to the applicant that the company will either favorably or unfavorably respond to health disclosures.

Signal Theory

According to signal theory (Spence, 1973), job seekers can be attracted to specific jobs based on the signals or cues organizations send through recruitment materials and hiring practices. Applicants rely on signals to reduce uncertainty and to form judgments about the company. Signal theory suggests that, in the absence of other information during the recruitment process, applicants rely on peripheral cues, or salient signals that require little effort to process, to form an impression about the organization. Signals may include branding, policies, mission statements, and requirements. McNall et al. (2010) suggest that observable organizational policies including maternity leave and medical leave can be signals regarding unobservable characteristics such as care and concern for employees. Related to the current study, Braddy et al. (2006) found applicants drew inferences about an organization's culture based on the website's design features and content regarding organizational values, awards, policies, and goals.

To appear competent, organizations intentionally communicate positive information that may otherwise be imperceptible to stakeholders. Despite intentions, however, not all signals organizations communicate are interpreted positively. Applicants attend to different signals or perceive the same signal differently (Highhouse et al., 2007). Receivers/applicants may assign more importance to a signal that is consistent with their values than an antithetical signal, or they may cognitively distort a signal so the message is more consistent with their viewpoints (Ehrhart & Zieger, 2005).

By 2050, the American labor force growth rate is predicted to drop to 0.7% (Toossi, 2012). As the number of applicants per vacancy declines, organizations may experience greater pressure to develop strategic recruitment strategies. To successfully recruit in a competitive market, employers signal to applicants their competencies and strengths through materials such as the VSD form (Spence, 1974). If an applicant perceives the signals (e.g., VSD form) a company communicates as inconsistent, inaccurate, or unethical, they may form negative impressions of a company. With respect to the VSD form, interpretations of this signal as credible and appealing can influence select populations (Tirole, 1990). If applicants perceive the signal as credible and the prospective employer as trustworthy, applicants may assume decreased risk with future employment with the organization.

Signal Theory and PWODs

Although the current study focuses on PWDs' experiences, it is also critical to understand people without disabilities' (PWODs) perspectives of the VSD form. Although the form targets PWDs, PWODs still complete this form during the job application process. This form could potentially reinforce or dissuade a PWODs' decision to apply to companies using this form. Gilliland (1993) claimed that applicants who viewed the recruitment-selection process as unfair would be less likely to accept a job offer than those who perceive it as fair. Perceiving recruitment procedures as unfair may engender disdain and concern from all applicants. An organization's fair and just actions signal that it can be trusted and affiliation with the company is not risky. Lind (2001) found that demonstrating fairness is particularly important during the early stages of employment when uncertainty is high. The initial events (e.g., the recruitment process) influence the lens through which people interpret organizational actions. Thus, recruitment procedures, including the VSD form, can influence all applicants' confidence and decision to become members of an organization.

Signal Theory and PWDs

With respect to PWDs, observable signals regarding flexibility and individualized consideration may communicate whether a disability identity will be valued or devalued in an organization. According to Greene (2009), "people do not share without attempting to estimate reactions of others for their own protection and safety" (p.226). Individuals depend on signals transmitted by the organization to gauge the organization's anticipated responses to a disclosure. Jans et al. (2012) found participants with disabilities sought positive signals from organizations, including mission statements addressing disability and diversity initiatives, before disclosing their disabilities in the hiring process.

Guided by the ADA's goals, the Department of Labor designed the VSD form to provide "equal opportunity to qualified people with disabilities." Policies and procedures that protect employees and applicants with disabilities may suggest societal attitudes are becoming more accepting of disabilities, thus potentially encouraging more individuals to embrace a disability identity (Onken & Slaten, 2000). The VSD form also encourages identification and disclosure with the following sentence: "Identifying yourself as an individual with a disability is voluntary, and we hope that you will choose to do so."

Although identification and disclosure are encouraged, the VSD form may also deter PWDs from completing this form. The signals may communicate disabilities are devalued, causing individuals to conceal or minimize their disability to preserve a competent occupational identity (Kosciulek, 2007). An applicant may perceive the signal of a company's use of VSD form as a discriminatory measure designed to "screen out" PWDs, and thus may perceive the form negatively. PWDs may not apply for a position if they view use of the form as unethical and prejudiced, and therefore, discriminatory. Such applicants may believe the company's values do not align with their own, making the organization less attractive and, consequently, refrain from applying.

Research tends to focus on employers and coworkers' (i.e., observers) responses to disabilities in the workplace. Few studies, however, have focused on the perspectives of applicants with disabilities; PWDs' perspectives may not coincide with the perspectives and expectations of employers. For example, PWDs lack substantive information about the organization's climate, making recruitment materials more salient. Gaining insight into a disabled applicant's perspective also has important implications for disability-related policies and procedures. The onus of disclosure is on the employee as they are often required to disclose a disability to receive accommodations and protections (ADA, 2008). Therefore, the applicant's interpretation of the VSD form as a means to disclosure can shed light on current policies and procedures.

Seeking PWDs' opinions on federal forms can inform policymakers about whether these materials promote ADA's goals and encourage disclosure. Additional insight can also help policymakers remove barriers PWDs experience when navigating the recruitment and hiring process. This study focuses on individuals' perceptions of a signal particularly relevant to PWDs - the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability (VSD). To understand what characteristics of the organization are "signaled" by the VSD form, we examined the following research question:

RQ1: How do individuals interpret the VSD form during the job application process?


Participants were recruited from undergraduate online communication courses and disability resource centers at a large university and medium-sized community college in the southwest of the United States. The research project was approved by both schools' Institutional Review Boards. Participants were also recruited from Amazon's Mechanical Turk (Mturk), an online crowdsourcing marketplace. We recruited participants with disabilities, and those without, because this federal form is presented to all applicants who apply for a job using this form. Moreover, perceptions of this form can affect both PWDs' and PWODs' likelihood to apply for a position requiring this form. To participate in the study, respondents were required to be at least 18 years old and currently in college. This criterion was selected as targeted respondents are likely to apply for jobs in the near future and thus may encounter the VSD form during the application process.

The final sample consisted of 472 participants who provided informed consent. Of those, 378 were recruited through online undergraduate classes, 39 through Mturk, 32 through the community college's disability resource center, and 16 through the university's disability resource center. Most respondents identified as female (61.7%). Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 62 (M= 23.57). The majority classified as seniors (46.4%), 33.5% as juniors, 15% as sophomores, and 3.6% as freshmen. One respondent was a graduate student. The majority (69.1%) of the sample identified as Caucasian, 18.2% as Hispanic, 7.4% as African American, 5.9% as Asian, 1.5% as American Indian or Alaska Native, 1.1% as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 4% as other. Most respondents reported they had not previously encountered the VSD form (48.5%), 40.4% of respondents reported that they had previously encountered the VSD form, and 11.1% were not sure. Of the total respondents, 88 indicated they had a disability, by responding to the question, "Do you have any of the disabilities listed below?" in which the 18 disabilities from the VSD form were listed.


Interpretation of VSD form

RQ1 asked how participants interpret the VSD form. This was assessed by obtaining qualitative data in response to the following open-ended questions: "How do you feel about the VSD form?" and "Why do you think the organization asks applicants to complete the VSD form?" Themes identified through coding were further coded as positive, negative, neutral, or conflicting interpretations. We also asked participants to answer the following question: "Do you believe the form is designed to (1) increase the number of disabled individuals in the organization or (2) decrease the number of disabled individuals in the organization?"

Study Design

As part of a larger project, researchers asked respondents to review the VSD form during a hypothetical job application process. Respondents then answered open-ended questions about how they perceived the VSD form. Next, respondents indicate whether they believed the form was designed to increase or decrease the number of disabled individuals in the workplace. Thereafter, they provided demographic information and whether they have one of the disabilities listed on the VSD form. Respondents were asked to indicate specifically which disorder(s) they have by selecting the box next to the disorders that apply. Moreover, respondents indicated whether they have previously encountered the VSD form when applying for a job vacancy.

Analysis and Results

Interpretation of VSD Form – All respondents

RQ1 asked how participants interpret the VSD form. To answer this question, we completed a thematic analysis of participants' responses to open-ended questions. To assess the coding reliability of the primary coder/author, an outside coder not familiar with the study coded 23.4% of the responses using the codebook created by the first author. The coefficient of reliability for the two coders was .75, indicating acceptable agreement.

A total of 472 participants provided 1,210 interpretations of the VSD form. Analysis revealed thirteen themes: Discrimination, Privacy Violation, Assumption of Dishonesty, Legal Reasons, Format, Format Problems, Format Strengths, Accommodations, Equality, Person-Job Fit, Positive Assessment- No Explanation, Neutral Assessment- No Explanation, Negative Assessment- No Explanation. These themes were further coded as positive, negative, neutral, or conflicting codes/interpretations. Discrimination, privacy violation, assumption of dishonesty, and format problems were coded as negative interpretations; legal reasons, person-job fit, and format were coded as neutral interpretations; and accommodations, equality, and format strengths were coded as positive interpretations. To triangulate the data, 38.6% of the PWDs reported negative interpretations, 18.2% reported positive, 22.7% reported neutral, and 20.5% reported conflicting. In total, 31.8% of all individuals reported negative interpretations, 29.9% reported positive, 21% reported neutral, and 16.5% reported conflicting. Moreover, 58.1% percent of respondents indicated that the form was designed to "decrease" the number of disabled individuals in the workplace rather than "increase." Triangulation refers to the application of various methods to analyze the same phenomena (Patton, 1999). In the current study, the interpretations associated with the VSD form were found through qualitative, open-ended questions and a survey item question regarding the purpose of the form. The primary themes are addressed in the next section. Appendix A presents the codebook used in this analysis.

Negative Interpretations


Of the total respondents, 114 interpreted the form as discriminatory, which refers to the unjust or prejudicial treatment of PWDs. Specifically, 32.95% of PWDs and 22.14% of PWODs interpreted the form as discriminatory. Comments suggesting applicants would not be offered the job if they disclosed their disability were coded as "discrimination." Respondents commented on "being judged" or "screened out" if they or others shared their disabilities. A PWD questioned, "Why would I voluntarily tell any prospective employer this information? How would I or anyone else know that they are not using this information to 'weed out' candidates and deny disabled people jobs?" Another PWD stated, "They [the employers] want to hire someone without a 'deal breaker' disability to make sure they aren't impeding on their business."

Several respondents questioned why the form was completed during the application process. "What is the significance of knowing this information prior to meeting the applicant? I only see this form as a justification (whether right or wrong) for employers to discriminate against disabled people." Another stated,

"I understand that the company states that it is to be equal, but if they see a disability, they might just say that the candidate did not fit the job, rather than saying it is due to the disability. For that reason, it makes me question if this is important to fill out before and not after receiving a job."

Despite the form's voluntary format, one respondent noted,

"By using the word 'voluntary' companies can get away with the legality issues, but it still feels very discriminatory… I feel that it's a way of filtering out applicants that employers do not want to hire. If I suffered from a mental disorder like major depression, I would opt not to say anything because of the judgment I would feel."

Some respondents questioned the motives of the employers using the form. As one PWD reported,

"It's rather intimidating. I am always worried that while an employer says they do not discriminate, that they actually do. I have had experiences in the past where there was no understanding and support for my disability."

Others provided justification for why an employer may discriminate.

"I think the organization asks applicants to complete the VSD forms to see if there is anything they might be liable for, or to scope out future employees that will have the least amount of trouble working and coming into work every day."

Privacy Violation

Although employers gain information about applicants through the VSD form, 43 respondents commented on the form's potential to violate privacy. In fact, 12.50% of PWDs and 8.33% of PWODs viewed the information collected on the form as too personal or private. Responses included words such as "invasive," "forced," and "intrusive." A respondent commented, "I feel that it can be too invasive and discourage people to disclose such personal information." A PWD stated, "It does not guarantee privacy, which is why I would not disclose." A few respondents commented on the irrelevance of the private information. "I believe that it is infringing a bit on someone's private information that maybe isn't completely necessary to have to tell/explain." Another stated, "I do not think that it is all that necessary for the employers to know about all or certain medical conditions one may have or used to have, especially before meeting the person."

Format (Strengths and Problems)

Format refers to the structure, wording, and overall meaning derived from the form. Respondents (22.73% of PWDs; 21.09% of PWODs) who negatively evaluated the format commented on the number of disabilities listed, the vagueness or specificity of the words, or the meaning of the sentences on the VSD form (N=99). Adjectives used to describe the form included "overwhelming," "confusing," and "unstructured." Respondents desired additional detail and instruction for terms such as "disability" and "disclose." As one respondent stated, "What does it mean if I disclose? I feel confused on whether I should disclose or not." Another commented, "I would prefer it to not have a list of disabilities. Although it says 'include, but are not limited to' it does seem to exclude or narrowly define disability." One PWD shared their dismay with the term, "disability" by stating, "Being Deaf is a cultural identity, not a medical identity or a 'disability.' Disability is a social construct that ends up identifying us as 'other.'"

In terms of the visual appearance of the form, a respondent stated, "I think it is a little hostile with all caps in the check box for whether or not you have a disability." Respondents who positively evaluated the form (N=76) also noted the selected disabilities listed, the word choice, and the meaning of the sentences used on the VSD form. Some commented on the organized and direct nature of the form. Adjectives used to describe the form included "organized" and "clear." A respondent stated, "it provides crucial information." Another noted, "I think that the VSD form is simple and easy to understand if people take the time out to read the first paragraphs." A few respondents commented on the language used in the form. "It contains a great deal of reassuring language to convince its audience that it will not be used to discriminate. It also makes multiple mentions of government requirements." Format strengths were mentioned by only 15.89% of PWODs and 6.82% of PWDs.

Neutral Interpretations

Person-Job Fit

Person-job fit (N=264) refers to the organization's assessment of the candidate's compatibility with the organization. We also categorized the provision of information about the candidate to the organization under "person-job fit." Person-job fit was interpreted by 32.95% of PWDs and 63.02% of PWODs. Respondents noted that if the employer knows the applicant has a disability, they can properly assess whether the person is capable (physically or mentally) of performing the tasks associated with the position. Others commented that the form allows employers to develop a better understanding of the applicant. A respondent commented, "to ensure that the organization knows as much as possible about who they are hiring." Another commented, "because they want to know how the applicant will be able to work in the workplace and if there are any factors that could potentially get in the way of getting the job done." A few respondents discussed the benefits associated with person-job fit. One PWD commented,

"So that the employer can see if the applicant has any disabilities that will prevent them from being successful at the job. I think the VSD form has good intentions, in that it wants to make sure people are fit for the type of environment. Like stated above, if someone has a missing limb or is blind, they may not be fit for a job where there is a lot of heavy lifting or walking around."

Legal Reasons

Respondents (N=156; 48.86% PWDs and 29.43% PWODs) commented on the legal applications of the VSD form. Legal reasons include financial incentives and obligations, insurance, quotas, and HR and governmental policies.

A respondent commented, "I believe that legally this creates a safeguard for the employer." Another respondent noted, "they can check a box and receive federal funding for having X number of disabled employees." One PWD noted, "It is used to provide data to the government and indicates a level of compliance for how businesses follow certain laws and processes." Some PWDs were critical of the legal purposes. "I feel it proves that a company is 'diverse' for a statistic." Another PWD stated, "I think it's an obligation forced upon them by the government."

Positive Interpretations


Although the majority of respondents interpreted the form as a measure to "screen out" applicants, 19.32% of PWDs and 20.57% PWODs indicated a positive outcome of providing accommodations to future employees (N=96). Accommodations refer to the organization's actions to assist a disabled employee or make changes in the workplace to ameliorate the working conditions. A respondent noted, "I think it might help the managers or boss facilitate their employees in case of an emergency or in case the employee needs extra attention or medication needs." A few respondents identified specific accommodations. For example, one stated,

"I think it is important to know if someone needs accommodations for a position. For example, a person applying for a warehouse job that requires heavy lifting needs to let an employer know if they have any physical disabilities that may not allow them to lift."

A PWD commented,

"So that they can design a job that would accompany anyone they found they wanted to hire despite their disability. For example, they might hire someone who is missing part of their arms, so they need to know in order to provide that person with a headset per say rather than a phone to make calls."


Although equal employment could be categorized under "legal reasons," 4.55% of PWDs and 5.73% of PWODs indicated "equality" without the mention of legal reasons (N=26). As such, these responses were coded separately from "legal reasons." Equality refers to parity of employment opportunities between PWDs and those without. One respondent noted, "It gives a chance for equal opportunity. A chance for everyone." A PWD commented, "They want everyone to have the same opportunities for applying for a job." Another PWD questioned the VSD's purpose of equality. "In extreme optimism, I assume that they are just using it to make sure they are not being biased against people with disabilities in their hiring practices."

Conflicting Interpretations

Responses were coded as "conflicting" when the responses included both a negative and positive interpretation. For example, a respondent commented,

"In some cases, I think this is a violation of privacy and the equal employment opportunities. On the other hand, I think that this form does provide people the ability to disclose personal information about their health that would require special on the job accommodations."

The primary coder coded this response as "violation of privacy" and "discrimination" (i.e., negative interpretations) as well as "accommodations" (i.e., positive interpretation). As a second example, the primary coder coded the response below as "accommodations" (positive interpretation) and discrimination (negative interpretation).

"I think that it can be very important for your employer to know if you have any disabilities so then they can provide you with the assistance you need. I could also see it as being a little wrong in a sense because some employers may not want to hire someone because they have major depression. With depression there are medications and the person with depression could be totally normal during the day but the employer turns them down just because of the label of being depressed. I do get it if someone has missing limbs because some jobs may require you to lift heavy items and that could be a potential liability."

In total, 79 respondents (16.7%) provided conflicting interpretations. When a response included a positive and neutral interpretation or a negative and neutral interpretation, the response was coded as "positive interpretation" or "negative interpretation" respectively.



The U.S. Department of Labor designed the VSD form to enable the inclusion of disabled workers in the workplace and increase the employment rate of PWDs. These goals coincide with ADA's goals of equality of opportunity and independence. Most respondents in the current study, however, interpreted the VSD form (signal) as discriminatory, with 58.1% percent indicating that the form was designed to "decrease" the number of disabled individuals in the workplace rather than "increase." Conversely, only 62 PWODs and 8 PWDs of 472 respondents (14%) noted that the form promoted "equality." This finding suggests that job applicants generally do not interpret the form as intended by the ADA. As a respondent explained, "I understand what they are trying to do, however I feel that people [applicants] would automatically assume they will be disqualified for having a disability and sharing the info before you [they] get hired."

Relatedly, respondents (N=43) also perceived the VSD form as a mechanism to violate privacy. Violating one's privacy and requesting information considered personal may lead to adverse reactions and perceptions from applicants (Bauer et al., 2006). Policymakers and employers should consider the information an applicant has a right to keep private and how exercising that right influences an individual's professional opportunities.

The benefits associated with recruitment materials, however, including accommodations and person-job fit, may counterbalance privacy risks. With knowledge of a person's disability, employers can provide appropriate accommodations to improve working conditions. Moreover, employers can better assess person-job fit with disability-related information. As one respondent noted,

"I like the opportunity to identify myself as disabled. Should the hiring team agree that my disability would be a detriment to the job, it would be better if I was not hired in the first place. Including management in the personal aspects of disability during the hiring process would afford opportunity to identify some potential problems before they arise."

Providing accommodations to employees with disabilities has legal repercussions. Although not positively or negatively-valenced, legal reasons for the VSD form were mentioned by approximately 34 percent of the respondents, with references to financial incentives, liability protection, and federal quotas associated with the form,

The format of the document and the information provided also provoked positive, negative, and neutral reactions. Although some respondents commented on the form's direct and organized format, others sought additional information and instruction. "You are checking a box saying yes or no, but not even explaining which one or your situation. This leads me to believe the employer doesn't really care what you are struggling with, only that you are disabled," a respondent commented.

Although there were no major differences between PWDs' and PWODs' interpretations of the VSD form, PWDs were much more likely to report legal reasons (48.86% PWDs; 29.43% PWODs) and discrimination (32.95% of PWDs; 22.14% of PWODs), whereas PWODs were more likely to report person-job fit (32.95% of PWDs; 63.02% of PWODs) and equality (4.55% of PWDs; 5.73% of PWODs). PWDs may be more familiar with the legal implications of reporting disabilities with institutions than PWODs due to past experiences. PWDS may also be more sensitive to potential discriminatory practices than those without disabilities. Individuals with health disabilities come to expect perceptions of incompetence and rejection from others. Research suggests that minorities are more aware of and sensitive to signals conveying discriminatory practices than non-minority populations (Branscombe et al., 1999).

A large number of PWODs' likely interpreted person-job fit because employers often use application materials to assess person-job fit, regardless of whether the application item includes disability-related information. PWODs reported equality as a primary theme more than PWDs. As suggested earlier, job applicants may not interpret the form as intended by ADA. Although we did not examine why individuals interpreted the form as they did, we speculate PWODs may be more likely to assume an organization's positive intentions, while PWDs may have lower expectations of equal treatment due to greater difficulties securing employment.

Signals and Disability Models

Although the form's purpose is to collect disability information from PWDs to attract and accommodate employees, our findings suggest the form may not be achieving its intended goal in the United States. Nearly 60% of participants perceived the form as a strategy to decrease the number of disabled individuals in the organization. This finding is consistent with previous research. Lockart (2017) found that seven out of ten individuals with mental health disabilities would not disclose their conditions in the future, regardless of whether they received accommodations. "Participants would rather ask for accommodation on an 'as-needed basis' instead of 'checking a box' that could permanently define his or her identity as 'inferior'" (Lockhart, 2017, p. 121).

Consistent with both the medical and social models, the current study's findings suggest applicants hold differing views of the VSD form. The medical model assumes PWDs are objectified and labeled abnormal from other functioning members of society. Checking a box to indicate an individual is disabled may subjugate PWDs into feeling their qualifications and employment are based on their disability. As one respondent noted, "I did experience an initial trepidation when I saw it. Specifically, when they list out different classifications of disability, it felt as though they were singling out people with these conditions." With most forms of affirmative action such as a quota, classification is needed so recipients are recorded and acknowledged. This may be problematic, however, in that classification is typically dominated by the medical profession, contributing to the predominance of the medical model of disability (Oliver, 1990). However, consistent with the social model, some participants recognized that the VSD form is a procedure to reduce societal barriers to employment for PWDs. As one respondent noted, "I like how the government is providing equal opportunity to qualified individuals with disabilities because they should receive the same rights as any other person."

To avoid labeling, organizations may consider other ways applicants and employees can share their health information. Creating a culture of acceptance and talking openly about health and accommodations may encourage individuals to disclose their disability on their own time (Young & Kan, 2015). Moreover, offering multiple ways to share health information is beneficial. In Young and Kan (2018)'s report, they recommend organizations should have at least two official ways by which employees can share health information, including anonymous and non-anonymous mechanisms. The survey found organizations that use anonymous and non-anonymous self-identification methods have a higher percentage of employees with disabilities than companies who use just one self-identification method. These changes can better ensure the US Department of Labor's policies are grounded in the social model rather than the medical model of disability.

Implications for Signal Theory

This study applied signal theory to the recruitment process and identified the various perceptions in relation to the same signal — the VSD form. Future research should extend signal theory to account for the interplay of various signals relevant to the recruitment process and examine how impactful these signals are at various points during the job process. Chapman et al., (2005) found that signals about recruiter characteristics (i.e., values, demographics) had a weaker association with job-organizational attraction than other characteristics such as job-organization characteristics. This was especially true during the early stages of the hiring process, suggesting applicants depend less on signals from recruiters as more information about the job and organization is known.

Limitations and Future Research

As of April 2023, the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (OFCCP) released a revised version of the VSD form. The study was conducted in the Spring of 2019 using the previous version of the VSD form. Compared to the previous two-page VSD form, the current version of the form is one page and some of the verbiage has been modified. The current form also states that completion is voluntary, but it now states that "We [employer] have a goal of having at least 7% of our workers as people with disabilities. The law says we must measure our progress towards this goal."

The updated form also retains the section providing examples of disabilities, but has expanded to include the following: "Alcohol or other substance abuse disorder," "Autoimmune disorder," "Cardiovascular or heart disease," "Celiac disease," "Deaf or serious difficulty hearing," "Gastrointestinal disorders," and "Nervous system conditions."

The self-identification options have also been slightly modified. The previous "YES, I HAVE A DISABILITY (or previously had a disability)" is now "Yes, I have a disability, or have had one in the past." The previous "NO, I DON'T HAVE A DISABILITY" is now "No, I do not have a disability and have not had one in the past." Respondents continue to have the option to decline and can select, "I do not want to answer." The previous and current versions of the VSD form are located in Appendix B.

Although this study was conducted prior to the form's changes, the findings from the current study are likely still applicable and reflective of applicants' perspectives of the current VSD form. The information on the form remains fairly consistent between both versions of the form with slight changes in verbiage. Due to the superficial changes made, the interpretations of the previous version of the VSD form likely still hold true for the current version of the VSD form. However, the current study's findings could be minimized due to changes to the federal mandate.

Another potential limitation is that the sample primarily consisted of undergraduate, female students. Future studies should address how individuals with little or more education respond to the VSD form to generate findings that are more generalizable to the public.

While the present study provides important contributions to the literature by identifying how individuals in the United States interpret a company's use of the VSD form and applicants' likelihood to disclose a disability on the form, it does not address how those interpretations may influence actual outcomes. For example, our research did not examine whether PWDs will actually disclose a disability on the VSD form or whether they will apply for a job position. Future research examining such outcomes would provide important theoretical and practical insights.

Finally, the present study examined only the signal receiver's perspective. However, an applicant's response to the form (i.e., Yes, No, or I choose not to respond) also conveys a signal to the employer about the applicant. Signal theory explicates an exchange of signals between the applicant and the employer, where employers are also assessing the weight and valence of a signal sent by the applicant. Despite the form's voluntary nature, choosing not to respond on the VSD form still sends a message to the employer, whether positive or negative. Future research should examine how employers interpret various signals conveyed by the applicant to provide insight on hiring behaviors and decisions.

Practical Implications

As the number of applicants per vacancy declines, organizations will experience greater pressure to develop strategic recruitment strategies to increase the number of applicants for a given vacant position. Barber and Roehling (1993) emphasized the importance of effective recruitment, stating, "the ultimate cost of failure to attract applicants may be an organization's failure" (p. 845). Similar to other recruitment initiatives, the VSD form can be associated with positive and negative outcomes.

Results of the present study have implications for employers and policymakers. First, practitioners should consider whether the VSD form is achieving its intended purpose of promoting inclusivity. Applicants may be deterred from revealing health information or applying if they perceive the form as discriminatory or confusing. Several respondents reported confusion and dismay about the vagueness of terms such as "disclosure" and "disability." To reduce confusion and perceived discrimination, policy makers should consider changing the format and wording of the VSD form. Emphasizing "person-job fit" on recruitment materials has proven to be effective when targeting specialized populations (Dineen & Noe, 2009). Dineen and Noe (2009) found that emphasizing needs-supplies fit, especially when modified to the preferences of the targeted population, can influence the quality of applications. Need-supplies fit refers to the physical and psychological resources, including accommodations, the employer can offer and the "needs, desires, and preferences" of the employee. Rather than leading with political and legal motives, policymakers should consider emphasizing accommodations and resources on the form to improve recruitment of PWDs. As one respondent noted, "The first sentence…makes it seem like an obligation for the company to go through this process and hire those with disabilities. This is not welcoming to those who qualify." Perhaps an introductory sentence on the VSD form could state, "To recruit, accommodate, and enable people with disabilities in the workplace, the federal VSD form is intended…."

Completely omitting information about governmental relations, however, is not advised because applicants value transparency and directness. Research shows organizations that clearly state relevant organizational policies were effective in transmitting the company's trademarks of diversity, rewards, and supportiveness. Moreover, Turner and Pratkanis (1994) found selection procedures that did not provide explicit information about the company's expectations were perceived by recipients as less fair than procedures that did. With most recruitment initiatives, the more information provided to justify the use, the better well an initiative can fare.


Most respondents perceived the VSD form as a way to decrease the number of PWDs in the workplace. Policy makers should modify the VSD form to deemphasize the discrimination associated with disabilities. For example, as stated by a respondent, "You are checking a box saying yes or no but not even explaining which one or your situation. This leads me to believe the employer doesn't really care what you are struggling with, only that you are disabled."

Including statements that emphasize inclusivity and diversity on the form may help address this issue and ensure the signal (i.e., the VSD form) is positively perceived. If more applicants positively interpret the VSD form, then the federal government may be able to achieve its intended goal of increasing the quota of disabled workers in U.S.' organizations. With more insight on organizational signals, employers and policy makers can develop diversity recruitment initiatives and materials to improve the application process for people with disabilities. As one respondent noted, "In the name of making sure they're doing a good job of attracting diversity, there must be a better way than this of collecting their data."


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Appendix A

Code book for qualitative responses

VSD Form Responses
Behavioral TypeDefinitionExample
DiscriminationDiscrimination refers to the unjust or prejudicial treatment of people with disabilitiesPeople feel like they are being judged.
Gives employers the opportunity to screen out people with disabilities
Privacy ViolationThe information sought is too personal and privateCan be too invasive
I feel as though it is a violation to an employee's personal life.
LegalLegal/governmental purposes of the VSD formTo make sure that their company is not violating ADA
Perhaps they want to fill a quota?
Person-Job FitThe organization's assessment of the candidate's compatibility with the company, seeking information from the applicant… to know the person a little more and to see if that particular person would fit the job
[See] if there are any factors that could potentially get in the way of getting the job done
AccommodationsThe organization's actions to assist an employee and/or improve working conditionsTo help the person with a disability
Facilitate the employee in case of an emergency
EqualityEquality refers to parity of employment opportunities and treatment between people with disabilities and those without.To help people be treated equal
It gives equal opportunity to people with disabilities.
Assumption of DishonestyThe assumption that individuals will not provide honest responses on the form.Many people are not going to answer Truthfully.
People who do have a disability would be reluctant to answer honestly.
Attitude- Positive Assessment (no explanation)A positive stance of the form is taken without explanation It is good.
It is important.
Attitude- Neutral Assessment (no explanation)A neutral stance of the form is taken without explanation.It is okay.
I don't have an opinion.
Attitude, Negative Assessment (no explanation)A negative stance of the form is taken without explanation.I don't like it.
I do not think it should be used.
Format- Positive AssessmentA positive assessment of the format of the form- this may include the wording, structure, and length of the form It is organized.
I liked that they listed disabilities.
Format- Neutral AssessmentA neutral assessment of the format of the form- this may include the wording, structure, and length of the form It looks like others [forms] that I've seen when filling out applications.
It has three options.
Format- Negative AssessmentA negative assessment of the format of the form—this may include the wording, structure, and number of disabilities listed The first sentence, "Because we do business with the government…" makes it seem like an obligation for the company…This is not welcoming to those who qualify.
I feel that it is too broad. One should have the ability to say what disabilities they have… as opposed to saying yes to all.

Appendix B

Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability Form | U.S. Department of Labor (dol.gov)

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