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Reframing disability in the labour market: narratives of value told by employers

Repenser le handicap sur le marché du travail: témoignages d’employeurs
Camilla Stub Lundberg et Per Koren Solvang
p. 23-39


Cet article aborde la façon dont les employeurs qui privilégient, lors de l’embauche, l’expérience spécifique du handicap et les compétences liées à la déficience redéfinissent le handicap, transformant en ressource humaine créatrice de valeur la capacité limitée d’une personne à travailler. L’article se base sur l’analyse de quatorze entretiens approfondis avec des employeurs norvégiens – ayant un handicap ou non – qui privilégient l’embauche de personnes handicapées. Il est avancé, en application de la théorie de la justification de Boltanski et Thévenot, que les récits des employeurs s’appuient sur plusieurs ordres de valeur pour légitimer les stratégies et décisions d’embauche. Pour les employeurs, la productivité valorise le citoyen travailleur. Sur la base de valeurs de collectivité, les employeurs font appel à la promotion des idées civiques et des droits des personnes handicapées, tandis que les récits de loyauté valorisent le sens du devoir et les employés qui restent à leur poste. En accordant de la valeur à la loyauté, de tels récits pourraient présenter les employés en situation de handicap comme particulièrement serviles et leur emploi comme une forme de charité. Le contexte politique mettant en valeur la participation des personnes handicapées au marché du travail semble jouer un rôle important dans l’élaboration des récits des employeurs.

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Notes de l’auteur

Funded by Research Council of Norway, grant 256646/H10. We are grateful for the feedback from Tone Alm Andreassen and Rune Halvorsen. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for valuable comments.

Texte intégral


1In recent decades, scholarship addressing disability and employment have focused on the conception of disability as an aspect of a person’s limited ability to work, or societal barriers to ordinary employment (Shakespeare, 2013: 31-3; Vornholt et al., 2018). Recently, this view has been challenged. An important question raised by Fadyl, McPherson and Nicholls (2015) is whether it is possible for disabled people to take up new and more valued positions as workers in terms of finding employment opportunities in the labour market that include who the person is, their experiences, as well as what they can do. They have identified a link in service provision organisations between the experience of disability or the functions of the disabled body and employment opportunities that value these traits. Hence, how employers think and act is important in the process of valuing and recruiting workers with disabilities. In the current article, we explore employer narratives in a sample of enterprises that privilege disability-specific experience and impairment-related competences in hiring practices. Privilege implies that the employers in the selected sample actively promote the recruitment of employees with disabilities over those without disabilities and that the enterprises represent particularly enabling work settings adapted to various disabled embodiments.

2Prior research that has investigated the potential for higher value positions for disabled people in employment consists of three distinct groups of studies. The first group of studies explores how disability-related experience may be an advantage in certain occupations, workplaces, and segments of the labour market (Andreassen, 2012; Barnes & Mercer, 2005). This group of studies sees a growing interest in the health sector in employing individuals with chronic illnesses or impairments in patient education and patient support services, as educators to professionals, and as advisors on hospital-mandated user councils. Disabled people have also established user-led agencies as non-profit enterprises that provide services for independent living. Here, personal experience of disability is recognised as an important qualification in the provision of high-quality services (Barnes & Mercer, 2005; Lero, Pletsch & Hilbrecht, 2012).

3A second group of studies highlights how impairment-related qualifications might be an advantage when performing certain tasks in the context of certain workplaces. These workplaces originate from the network of autism-supportive workplaces inspired by the Danish network of enterprises known as Specialisterne (The Specialists). These workplaces provide IT system testing and quality-assurance services. They are staffed by employees who self-identify as living with Asperger syndrome’ or situated in other positions within the autism spectrum. It is proposed that employees with Asperger syndrome’ may be well suited for certain repetitive and highly focused tasks in the development of software applications (Austin & Pisano, 2017; Hockerts, 2015). In addition, a few studies propose that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may contribute to entrepreneurial abilities as a result of enhanced creativity and decreased risk aversion (Antshel, 2018; Wiklund, Patzelt & Dimov, 2016).

4Within the third group of studies, disability is valued as a matter of diversity in employment (Lindsay et al., 2018; Thanem, 2008). It is proposed that diversity, including disability, may enhance problem-solving skills, innovativeness, and creativity (Värlander, 2012). Studies also suggest that hiring employees with disabilities may contribute to low staff turnover, increased loyalty, and gaining competitive market advantages for the employers since the customer base can be likewise diverse (Kalargyrou, 2014; Lindsay et al., 2018). Diversity also relates to issues of social and political equality, human rights, and anti-discrimination legislation, in line with corporate social responsibility (CSR). A Norwegian study states that while CSR has not traditionally played an important role in countries following a social democratic welfare model, such as Norway, CSR’s importance might be changing, presumably because employers are increasingly being asked to make greater contributions to labour market inclusion (Mandal & Ose, 2015).

5The three outlined groups of studies can be read as examples of efforts to reframe the value of disability and impairment experience, in which the role of the employer is decisive. Employers have a profound impact on labour market participation of disabled people as they are gatekeepers to employment. A gap in the literature concerns empirical studies of how employers think and act in evaluating potential job candidates with disabilities. This article aims to address this gap by presenting the results of an interview study conducted in Norway in 2018 and 2019, where we directed attention to employers’ justifications for hiring people with disabilities. We selected employers (n=14) where disability-specific experience and impairment-related competence were privileged in recruitment processes. We asked: In their stories, how do employers who privilege disability legitimate, negotiate, and promote their recruitment practices?

6When employers told stories to legitimate their hiring of disabled people, they placed high value on productivity and competitiveness, and pointed out labour market participation as a common good that should be offered to all citizens. The employers also spoke of the vulnerability of disabled people and, in some cases, talked about the uniqueness that people with certain disabilities possess. To account for this narrative heterogeneity, where concerns of productivity intersect with those of employment equity, we depart from a narrative approach where legitimacy is negotiated and justified by operating within the diverse norms and values of the surrounding society (Golant & Sillince, 2007). We also draw from a theoretical perspective that embraces the complexity and potential contradictions of how actors legitimate just arrangements in organisations by referring to social value orders.

Theoretical perspective

7In their theory of justification, the French sociologists Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) offer a nuanced system of how different types of justifications are crucial to understanding decision making and strategy development in organisations. They introduce six orders of worth that are broad, ideal constructions of justifications built upon a conception of the common good as a principle which is “superior to persons and can institute equivalence among them” (Boltanski, 2012: 14). The six orders of worth are identified with the keywords industrial, civic, domestic, inspirational, fame, and market. The orders tell us what leads people to go beyond their personal interests and ground their actions in values based in different aspects of the higher social order. At the heart of each order is a common higher principle, and actions are evaluated and justified according to the higher principle.

8To give an overview of the six orders of worth and the higher principles they are linked to, we start out with the industrial order. In this value order, the efficiency of people, their productivity and their expertise as well as principles of rational organisation are key references for valued actions. Human dignity is specified as the potential for activity that nourishes the human machine in its work” (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006: 13; emphasis in original). The industrial order identifies worthy social actors as effective, productive, and reliable, as the cogwheels of an organisation” (ibid.: 205). In the market order, desire for purchasing is a leading motivation for actions. Worthy objects are sellable goods and worthy subjects are rich and live an affluent life. The market order is structured by the free competition between human beings whose actions are coordinated by their personal interests in the rational pursuit of scarce goods. Actions are worthy if they contribute to the goal of maximising profit. In the civic order, the equal citizen is in the forefront and the welfare of the many is an overarching principle of worth. In this order, subjects are worthy when they represent the general will and embody general interests. The civic order legitimises social actions within a system of individual rights guaranteed by the state and by formal rules and procedures. When enacting values inherent in the civic order, social actors have a strong commitment to political bonds, civil rights, and collective identities, such as those associated within political parties or community associations. The domestic order is characterised by trust and authority as the most important forms of relation and qualification, respectively. The worth of the person is evaluated by their position in a hierarchical system of mutual dependency. The worthy in the domestic order are the humble and obedient, who respect the norms, values, and traditions of the community to which they belong. Here, social actions are primarily judged by their direct and indirect effects on social relations in and around the family or networks that resemble the family. The welfare state can also represent domestic values, as an arrangement where the strong takes care of those who struggle and need assistance (Nielsen, 2018). The inspirational order highlights creativity and social actions are legitimated by being innovative. Actors are valued for their uniqueness, creativity and artistic sensibility. They often deviate from the ordinary and the assessment of worth does not reflect the opinion of others. Finally, in the order of fame, to be known and recognised are the worthiest states. A desired image of the company’s product is communicated and the company works to cultivate its brand. Tools such as company websites, press coverage, and interviews are important in establishing worth in the order of fame. In summing up the presentation of the six orders, it is important to note that there is not a hierarchy among the orders per se; they gain prominence in the concrete social practice at hand (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006: 159-211).

9The orders-of-worth approach has been applied in a wide variety of settings, including education (Watson, 2014), welfare activation policy targeted at facilitating and encouraging marginalised people to labour market participation, including disabled people (Hansen, 2019), sick leave (Hanisch & Solvang, 2019) and food policy (Ponte, 2016). In a summary of non-profit organisation studies applying the orders-of-worth approach, Jagd (2011) concludes that the framework helps reveal the variety of values inherent in such spaces and helps us understand the practices of negotiating between conflicting values.

10Finally, disability employment policy in the climate of welfare activation can be understood as a form of governmentality (Foucault, 1991). In brief, governmentality refers to “the mode of power concerned with the maintenance and control of bodies and persons, the production and regulation of persons and populations, and the circulation of goods insofar as they maintain or restrict the life of the population” (Butler, 2004: 52). From the angle of governmentality, welfare activation becomes a resource that enables the transformation of welfare states through a shift from the right to disability benefits to stricter obligations to work. As a mode of power, it is concerned with creating subjects that are encouraged to self-govern, rather than live as “passive” welfare subjects. Through this process, new subjectivities are produced (Newman, 2007). Hence, employers who privilege the recruitment of disabled employees in the labour market operate as central governance actors. They are involved in the changing modes of how disabled employees are governed.

Data and methodology

The Norwegian context

11The Nordic countries are characterised as generous welfare states that provide important safety nets for people with impairments and health issues (Halvorsen, Hvinden & Schøyen, 2015). However, “there is a strong consensus that the maintenance of the Nordic model presupposes a population actively involved in all aspects of societal processes, not least in working life” (Frøyland, Schafft & Spjelkavik, 2019: 194).

12Nordic welfare activation policy is renowned for an enabling approach that centres on employer engagement (Frøyland, Andreassen & Innvær, 2019). The aim is to increase employers’ willingness to recruit disabled people. In Norway, this happens in various ways. One way is through wage subsidies that provide economic incentives to compensate employers who hire persons with disabilities, contingent on a medical assessment conducted by the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). These subsidies are granted most often as temporary incentives, though sometimes they serve as a permanent support (Kuznetsova & Yalcin, 2017). Another means of increasing employers’ willingness to recruit disabled people is through legislation. The Norwegian Working Environment Act focuses on protecting disabled people in the hiring process and securing workplace accommodations for disabled people (Bjørnshagen & Ugreninov, 2021). Both economic initiatives and legislation are part of a trend whereby employers’ roles and responsibilities are of increasing importance in the employment of people with disabilities in Nordic as well as in other Western countries (Van der Aa & van Berkel, 2014). The employers’ efforts to improve labour market inclusion are regarded as essential to reach the goals of the active social and labour market policies.


13We applied purposeful sampling in the recruitment of nine workplaces. The workplaces were identified through media coverage and scholarly networks and selected for their potential to provide in-depth knowledge about the practice of giving preference to people with disabilities when hiring employees (Robinson, 2014). The workplaces selected for the study are recruiting and hiring people with disability-related experience and impairment-related qualifications. They varied in size, but the majority were small workplaces with 10-20 employees. They belonged to various sectors, including information technology, construction work, and caring services. The companies operated in different market environments and developed and sold products and services to both public and private buyers. Employers recruited and hired employees with various impairments such as spinal cord injuries, deafness, Asperger syndrome’, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Down syndrome. Three of the workplaces only recruited employees on the autism spectrum who self-identified as living with Asperger syndrome’ (hence our use of this term as opposed to referring to the autism spectrum). The share of employees with disabilities within each workplace varied. In six workplaces, people with disabilities constituted as much as 50-100 percent of the total workforce.

14Between May 2018 and February 2019, we conducted interviews with employers (n=14) in these 9 workplaces. All interviews took place in the workplace. Fourteen employers responsible for recruitment and hiring decisions in their respective companies were interviewed. Three group interviews (n=7), and seven individual interviews were conducted by the authors. Eight of the employers were themselves disabled (deaf, mobility impaired, ADHD). The rest had extensive experience with disability, most of them as parents of children with disabilities. We conducted the interviews with the employers who were deaf with the assistance of in-house sign interpreters well attuned to the themes for discussion.

15To facilitate the informants’ voices and prompt in-depth storytelling, the interviews were semi-structured (Kallio et al., 2016), allowing for a flexible approach where participants were encouraged to discuss relevant issues that were not restricted to pre-determined themes. We encouraged employers to bring forward their stories of how they motivate and legitimate their recruitment practices, about qualifications and strengths of their employees, marketing strategies and stakeholders involved, and social interaction within the workplace. We also discussed how the employers perceived and deployed support measures from NAV.

16The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. The Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD) assessed and reviewed the study, and we carried out the research according to their ethical guidelines. Participants provided active, informed consent.


17Our analytic approach aligns with narrative as a form of discourse that is central to the emergence and maintenance of legitimacy (Golant & Sillince, 2007). Legitimation can, according to Golant and Sillince (2007), be studied through storytelling as persuasion and social construction. Such storytelling often takes the form of providing arguments or claims for the normative appropriateness of the workings of an organisation by providing a link to broad societal values and institutional standards.

18When analysing employers’ narratives as a form of discourse, we were inspired by a modified version of Ricœur’s (1976) theory of interpretation (Robinson & Kerr, 2015). It proceeds through a naïve understanding phase, structural analysis, and in-depth understanding phase. In the naïve understanding phase, we read through the transcripts several times and noted immediate impressions of the content. One such impression was how the employers brought up interpretations of their employees as valuable and productive staff. Examples include reflections of productivity and competitiveness in the labour market, avoiding the concept of disability, and emphasising collective identities of disability. In the structural analysis, we went back and forth between the transcripts and the emerging themes in an iterative manner. Gradually we developed three main themes of productivity, collectivity, and protectivity.

19We further developed the themes through Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) account of the orders of worth by interpreting when and how semantic descriptors of the six value orders were present. For example, concerning the industrial world, we examined how “work amazingly well” and “patience to carry out repetitive tasks” were used to describe employees with disabilities. To aid the interpretation of the value orders, we analysed the potential meaning of frequent concepts, symbols, metaphors, and adjectives through a social semiotic frame focused on the relationship between text and its context (Robinson & Kerr, 2015). All six orders of worth emerged as relevant, but the industrial, market, civic, and domestic orders were the most frequent. When a statement referred to several worlds, we assigned it to represent a compromise between value orders, as proposed by Boltanski and Thévenot (2006). Next, in the in-depth understanding phase, we added the governmentality perspective. It helped us articulate a clearer view of how employers’ narratives are shaped by the importance of employment in today’s society and employers’ central role within welfare activation policies.

20By the active inclusion of theoretical perspectives in the analysis, we build on an abductive approach. Unlike induction, abduction begins with data derived from a theory-informed research agenda, but unlike deductive analyses, abductive analyses are not bound by hypotheses formulated before the production of data (Timmermans & Tavory, 2012).


21From the narrative analysis, we developed the themes productivity, collectivity, and protectivity. First, employers organise their legitimation efforts around being productive, leading to a questioning of labour and welfare measures that would label their business and employees as less productive. Second, employers reframe disability using collective identities. Third, employers position their employees as loyal and dutiful, providing the employers with valued future security. We demonstrate how the industrial order has a prime importance for productivity, the civic order for collectivity, and the domestic order for protectivity, as well as how compromises between the orders are played out.


22The employers’ stories often included ordinary, productive business operations. Christopher, a manager of employees with Asperger syndrome’ in an IT consultancy firm, was eager to present the workplace as productive within the concept of what is normal:

Interviewer: How do you work with recruitment? Do you have a kind of practical training period or a trainee period?

Christopher, employer: We can make an assessment of whether we think they will fit in. Most people, and I mean more than 90 % are offered a job, and nearly all of them accept, so most of those who take up a practical training place end up getting an ordinary job, a job without wage subsidies, so a normal job, normal job. So one of the points that we have focused quite a lot on is trying to make everything as normal as possible, so that they don’t feel that this is sheltered employment, or that they are here due to charity. They’re here because they can do something really well, and that’s something customers are willing to pay for, to pay well for.

23The concept “normal” invokes particular attention as Christopher repeats it throughout the quotation, pointing to ordinary, permanent jobs without wage subsidies for his employees. First, normal appeals to industrial and market value order functionalities of both the workplace and employees themselves, accentuated by the superlatives “really well,” and “pay well for.” The next statements in the quote support these efforts. Christopher explicitly positions the workplace apart from certain meanings by establishing a distance from “charity” and “sheltered workplaces,” representing philanthropic humanitarian projects as doing someone a favour, or protecting workers from the demands of mainstream employment. Hence, normal is also interpreted as a symbol that is connected to the creation of a favourable image of the workplace. This representation invokes the order of fame. Normalisation according to industrial demands, market value, cultivating the company brand (fame), and disassociation from the domestic value order appear to be significant to Christopher in the turn to productivity.

24When portraying the ordinary workplace, semantic descriptors closer to the civic order were identified more frequently among employers who were themselves disabled. Ingrid and Hans, who identified as living with ADHD, illustrate this point:

Interviewer: So finally, what kind of profile do you think you have, because you talk, after all, about being an ordinary company? And you’re out there promoting your model or giving lectures about what you do, which may also set you apart from an ordinary company.

Ingrid, employer: I think it’s important that we come across as an ordinary company. Because if we were to come across as some type of sheltered employment enterprise, the workers would be seen very differently. If you go out and say we are an ordinary company with ordinary workers, though they have some challenges, well that’s…

Hans, employer: It is ordinary!

Ingrid: It really is ordinary! All the same.

Hans: That’s what we believe. That it’s normal in a society for people to have challenges. It makes you normal.

Ingrid: You probably have challenges too!

Interviewer: Yes, everyone does.

Hans: And it has a bearing on the sense of pride among those who work here, whether they bring any baggage with them or not, it’s not a matter of succeeding in a normal company, you are in an ordinary company, but we are more inclusive, we spend more time adapting things for each person. We try to see the whole person.

25Ingrid’s story is rather similar to Christopher’s in terms of avoiding associations with sheltered employment, which can be interpreted according to a domestic value dimension. Hans introduces another distinction when he talks of the importance of granting the moral dignity of ordinary workplaces. However, constructing a corporate image whereby the provision of equal opportunities, which is important in disability rights promotion, rather than meeting the requirements of so-labelled normal productivity, seems to be given priority. In Ingrid’s and Hans’s reflections, given the importance of equality, the civic order appears more important, hence, a civic/industrial value order compromise.

26Employers also talked about labour and welfare services as being representative of employment opportunities that “institutionalise,” and where people with disabilities are degraded to “users” in the process of finding a position at an ordinary workplace. Concepts such as users and institutionalisation symbolise somewhat isolated and formal administrative environments with less freedom and independence. The employers disassociate themselves from the idea, influenced by the domestic value order, that the welfare state represents an institutional framework where the strong take care of the weak. In the same vein, some employers invoked the market order of justification in order to promote themselves as representing self-reliant citizens. One example is John, an employer in a private enterprise that recruits deaf people, who stated, “It is better to be reliant on the market forces, than to be dependent on the welfare state.”

27Employers also expressed concern about permanent wage subsidies, and even questioned welfare regulations belonging to the civic order of justification, such as the independent living service provider, Jeanette:

Interviewer: Just a final question, since you actively recruit over than 50 % disabled people, do you use the different types of wage subsidy schemes offered by NAV?

Jeanette, employer: Mmm. We look at the effect the NAV schemes generate today and we have had some people on certain schemes, we can say that much, and we’ve also been rather critical, in relation to the effect of these instruments, whether they’re right. For example, we don’t think it’s ok that there are permanent wage subsidies for disabled people. Why should there be? The very fact that it’s permanent means that you are labelled as inadequate manpower the rest of your life. We will give you a small wage subsidy so that you can employ this person… it sends signals, signifies policy, that we are very critical of… But there are a lot of positive schemes you can use for periods to get people into employment, and that are important and right. But we try to see the measure in a longer, long-term political context, you could say, and see its effect. Labelling people as being inadequate manpower for their entire lives, those are the signal they’re giving.

28Jeanette is critical of the possible stigmatising effects of permanent wage subsidies. The eligibility criteria for wage subsidies are based on medical constructs of reduced work capacity, and on the underlying assumption that behaviours or bodies labelled by medical categorisations become devalued. When people are labelled, as Jeanette emphasises in the last sentence, they are placed into a cultural category that makes stereotypes salient and sticky, thus hampering industrial value.


29Next, employers resist the disabled body as pathological and lacking in work capacity and legitimise recruitment in terms of the co-creation of a social body. The social body represents ideas and values that provide productive possibilities related to the civic value order by engaging employees’ group interests. The independent living service provider represents one form of civic valuing, where the justification of recruitment strategies was part of a mission to be a disability-rights-sensitive employer:

Interviewer: Could you elaborate on what you mean by the experience of disabled people?

Jeanette, employer: It is a requirement that all of our advisers be disabled. And there, well everyone has been unemployed with their own assistance setup, so that they also have experience. You could say that they all share certain things. Experience, yes mainly experience of having assistance or functional assistance, and being discriminated against in society. An in-house process was also conducted to make us all understand the importance of such experiences, we’re not looking for people with impairments. We’re looking for people who are disabled, and there’s a difference there. You could say that, as in a social dimension, experiencing being discriminated against in a society and taking that with you, that’s very important for us here. It enables you to grasp the political, the social understanding of disability.

30Jeanette legitimates the recruitment of advisors through the criterion of being disabled. Being disabled is related to social approaches to disability, where disability is produced by social structures and attitudes, distinct from bodily functions and impairments. The manifold ways of experiencing impairment are replaced by a homogenising disability identity, which is founded on barriers to participation. The recruitment of disabled employees is also promoted by the recognition of service user experience as a means of improving the quality of services and developing user-directed services, where peer support is important. While both civic and industrial value orders are central in legitimating recruitment in this case, civic order dominates. This dominance is clearly reflected by Jeanette’s way of formulating the importance of removing barriers as a means to create equality in access and participation.

31Another form of justifying collectivity emerges in the case of hiring deaf employers. John and Henry resisted perceptions of the disabled body as pathological and incapable of work, and formulated counterarguments to this view: “We think of everyone [employees] here as culturally deaf, everybody uses sign language.” Deaf communities prosper and emerge particularly through the practice of signing. The interview with John and Henry commenced with the open question of how the business came to life. The indirect justification of their sign-language practice is central in their response:

John: It’s easier to teach people the technical stuff than to teach them a new language. So we would rather employ a deaf person who needs to develop their expertise, and then develop that expertise, than employ someone who knows a lot about the formal skills but doesn’t know any sign language. So we therefore decided to employ deaf people and develop the expertise we need over time. And that has resulted in a good group of people.

32Negotiating collectivity also took place through the discourse of valuing autistic ways of being in the world. Christopher avoids the term “disability” and highlights the industrial properties he associates with employees with Asperger syndrome’.

Interviewer: I just wondered if you wanted to say a little bit more about what you emphasise as positive in being different? What are the important characteristics of someone who is…?

Christopher, employer: Someone with Asperger’s often also has the patience to do repetitive tasks. Some of our employees are also good at recognising patterns, which can be very important in relation to seeing major problems in new soft-ware programs. These properties are often not as dominant in people who don’t have Asperger’s. So we try to take a different approach to Asperger’s and say that these people are, that having people with Asperger’s working for us is a competitive advantage. They’re actually better than others who perform the same tasks because they have Asperger’s. So that’s what we’re trying to do, to turn disability on its head, or, I wouldn’t even call it that. It’s a term I don’t like either. I mean, I have a disability. If you had said to me to go and be a carpenter, I wouldn’t have managed it at all.

33Here, impairment is conceptualised through the language of neurodiversity. The inspired value order is invoked as people with Asperger’s represent both the unique and the universal; they are both different and gifted. To Christopher, disability is avoided because it seems to connote incapacity. The difference between disability and Asperger syndrome’ is further underscored by highlighting specific capabilities, as can be seen in the use of adjectives such as patient, capable, strong, and better.

34Difference as a symbol relates to the neurodiversity movement’s claim that neurological and behavioural differences should be recognised as a source of strength and accepted rather than normalised (Runswick-Cole, 2014). This conceptualisation invokes the civic order. Difference is present in Anders’ response to the question of how to accommodate employees with Asperger syndrome’:

Anders, employer: It’s not a disease, they’re not disabled in that sense, but they are put together a bit differently, so they have special, unique characteristics. But respecting those characteristics will make them the company’s best employees. Their extreme accuracy and knowledge, way above that of others, in the field that interests them makes them a very fun group to work with, definitely.

35As Anders emphasises, valuing difference is underscored through adjectives such as best employees, extreme accuracy and knowledge high above others’. Difference, although associated with special and strange features, is construed as valuable in such narratives. The worth of being productive and effective is central in the industrial order, but even more important is how employers strive towards a process of recognising of people with Asperger syndrome’ through the use of difference as a collective identity-symbol, invoking the civic order.


36Employers’ narratives also, somewhat paradoxically, tie into domestic values, where employees are valued according to relational and sometimes hierarchical orders of worth. We have called this theme protectivity. Notions of protectivity are present when employers construct their employees as being loyal and grateful. The words of Marianne, an employer recruiting people with Asperger, represents this approach:

Marianne, employer: They are very loyal and conscientious. They don’t go anywhere else. They’re not on their way to somewhere else and they’re not interested in career paths, in the way many other people are. So they’re very loyal and they have the ability to persevere with the same tasks, they don’t need as much variation as everyone else does. We’ve said it often and it’s true. They enjoy being specialists and not generalists, which is unique. They simply enjoy not having very varied work, and I see that from other jobs I’ve had, that some people enjoy immersing themselves in their field, but very many young graduates want as much breadth as possible to build up their CVs […]. You need continuity for some routine tasks, and that’s where we come in.

37In the above, the domestic value order is invoked where the unworthy are rootless and do not stay in place. Employees are described through adjectives such as loyal and dutiful. While employers may gain from retaining such employees, repeated statements about what “they” (employees with Asperger) think and do indicates a somewhat paternalistic attitude. Implicit portrayals of charity emerge through associations with helpers and those who are helped, grateful, and stay in their jobs. This justification takes the form of a domestic/industrial compromise.

38Several employers told stories concerning protectivity, albeit in different ways. Below, John justifies the representation of a private workplace recruiting deaf people, rather than recruiting people into a hearing workplace, which may invoke paternalist emotions of taking care of someone:

John: Creating good workplaces that work for deaf people is a better solution than placing them one by one in hearing workplaces, where there is scepticism to start with. Many feel that… now we’re going to do a service to society and help a deaf person. […]. During lunch breaks for example, how are people meant to relate to one another? I really believe it’s better to have a workplace where you can relax. It’s not just a matter of getting a job, it’s also about staying in the job. I see a lot of people getting worn out, they end up on sick leave, burned out – simply because they have to constantly adapt. Being on your own and having communication problems with your group is tiring. There’s very little sickness absence here. We don’t see the type of sickness absence certificates that deaf people often have when they’re integrated. They struggle every day until they’re finally worn out. I also often experience that people go the extra mile here, because they all have a sense of ownership in relation to the company. They are concerned about the company’s survival. Everyone knows that a little extra is required of them. So, yes for the time being… Many people enjoy their work over a long period of time because they have a different kind of motivation, and that motivation is important to us. They also know that this is a chance they may never get again.

39In the employment context presented above, John argues for the organisation of deaf workplaces. Inclusion in hearing workplaces is presented as something strenuous for deaf employees through the metaphor of a “struggle,” referring to the effort needed to adapt and fit in. Adjectives such as tired, burned out, and worn out reflect these efforts. In contrast, the workplace John represents is favourably presented as a place where everyone has a kind of ownership of the company, which invokes loyalty. Here, employees are presented as eager to work overtime; they work with joy and have a low percentage of sick leave. The value of being loyal and thankful is central in the domestic order. In addition, the industrial and civic value orders are also invoked. The company needs productive employees to compete, legitimised by the industrial order, and John balances between being somewhat protective, drawing on domestic order values, with simultaneously addressing the unity of deaf people represented by the company’s recruitment policy, invoking the civic order.


40The introductory question raised by Fadyl, McPherson & Nicholls (2015) was whether disabled people can take up new and more valuable positions as workers in terms of finding employment opportunities in the labour market that include who the person is, their experiences, as well as what they can do. In our analysis, we explored the stories of employers privileging disability-specific experiences and impairment-related competences in recruitment processes. Further, we illuminated how the employers legitimate, negotiate, and promote their recruitment practices. Their narrations are shaped by broad societal norms and values held within specific sociopolitical contexts that emphasise the employer’s role in achieving labour market participation (Riessman, 2008).

41As demonstrated, three value narratives emerged among the employers, categorised as productivity, collectivity, and protectivity. All represent strategies for providing disabled people with positions as productive citizens, giving the principal position to the industrial order of worth. In the forms of justification subsumed under the title of productivity, the industrial order of worth holds a dominant position, supported by the market order of worth. The compromise between these two “lies at the very heart of a business enterprise” (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006: 332). In evoking the amalgam of these two value orders, the employers situate the work of employees with disabilities at another centre, namely that of the productive society and its contributing citizens – echoing the governmentality of activation policy.

42In the narratives subsumed under the label of collectivity, the civic order of worth was of greatest importance. Here, a compromise between the civic and industrial order took place, and the power of disability rights awareness and the deaf people’s movement shone through. These unifying movements were linked to productivity either in the form of sign language use, which kept sick leave levels low, or by providing employees with a political consciousness that was important to workplace culture and employer identity. As emphasised by Boltanski and Thévenot (ibid.: 328), the compromise between the industrial and civic orders of worth is related to the welfare state and collective solidarity. In our study, the employers were reluctant to enter a compromise in supporting welfare state arrangements for which their employees were eligible. One example was the independent living service provider who was hesitant to label disabled people as less productive than non-disabled people in the assessment process required of recipients of wage subsidies. The employer thus questions the concept of disability as a category for the individualised redistribution constructed by the welfare state (Stone, 1986). A Swedish study similarly indicates that an institutionalised notion of disability as infirmity is problematic in wage subsidy arrangements. Such subsidies tend to be perceived as a form of compensation given to employers because of standardised assumptions that people with disabilities are less productive (Gustafsson, Peralta & Danermark, 2014).

43In the current study, questioning disability as an obstacle came through very clearly among employers recruiting IT consultants with Asperger syndrome’. They strategically avoided the whole concept of disability. When presented with various possibilities in the compromise between civic and industrial order values, the employers seemed reluctant to accept the civic order as represented by welfare state arrangements. They were also hesitant to downplay the justifications of the industrial order. Instead, they tended to evoke civic-oriented collective struggles of recognition outside the diagnostic practices of the welfare and work inclusion systems. They did so by arguing for difference as a symbol that relates to the neurodiversity movement’s claim that neurological and behavioural differences should be accepted on their own terms. However, arguing for neurodiversity in employment might contribute to stereotyping autists as IT nerds and marginalising those without the same capabilities and productive possibilities (Runswick-Cole, 2014).

44Finally, in the narrative we have labelled protectivity, a compromise between the industrial and the domestic orders of worth emerged. Importantly, the common goal that gave meaning to parental authority and to the workplace as a safe haven was worker productivity via employee wellbeing. This argument features in several studies that relate loyalty and low turnover as benefits to employers when hiring employees with disabilities (Kalargyrou, 2014; Lindsay et al., 2018). However, loyalty as a benefit to the employer might construct an image of employees with disabilities as being particularly servile. These arguments may also be an unintended result of new disciplinary techniques related to employers’ central role within activation policy. Here, we believe further critical reflection and research is needed.

45Disability scholars have frequently pointed out that neoliberal norms of productivity, often associated with activation policies, are problematic for disabled people in several respects. Neoliberal norms that entail expectations of the productive citizen shift the focus from welfare to workfare, and are associated with assumptions of effective and rational agency that many disabled people are not able to achieve (Grover & Soldatic, 2013). In contrast, Fadyl McPherson & Nicholls (2015) and Maravelias (2020) analyse a neoliberal line of thinking in which disabled people are seen as being engaged in an “enterprise of themselves” (Foucault, 1988). This concept implies that people with disabilities invest in personal characteristics and life experience in addition to formal qualifications. They thereby produce themselves as human capital that is uniquely valuable in the labour market. Accordingly, disabled people are not protected from the market. Instead, they are regulated as valuable human capital that creates new work possibilities in the labour market. This regulation is reflected in studies that identify value in impairment-related qualifications, such as those associated with Asperger syndrome’ (Austin & Pisano, 2017; Hockerts, 2015) and ADHD (Antshel, 2018; Wiklund, Patzelt & Dimov, 2016). It is also reflected in studies about how disabled people have established user-led agencies as non-profit enterprises that provide services for independent living (Andreassen, 2012; Barnes & Mercer, 2005; Lero, Pletch & Hilbrecht, 2012).

46The narratives of value collected in the current study contribute to providing alternative conceptions of disability and employment that refuse, modify, and displace tragedy narratives and charity models of disability. These approaches to disability, which have long caused suffering through their focus on limitations and pity, are challenged by employers. The provision of alternative plots, as in the current study, is recognised as a key contribution of narrative approaches in disability studies (Smith & Sparkes, 2008: 19).


47This article contributes to the understanding of how people with disabilities can gain a valued position as workers within a normative policy context emphasising employment and the employers’ role in achieving labour market inclusion. Employers who strategically recruit people with disabilities employ three narratives of valuing what they do. First, they tell stories of disabled people as productive workers, most clearly expressed by the IT consultancy firms hiring employees identifying with Asperger syndrome’. Second, employers highlight corporate enterprises as a way of materialising collectivity and solidarity among disabled people and others engaged in disability rights promotion. Finally, employers emphasise that they protect disabled people and that the employees show a high degree of loyalty as a result. There is reason to be critical of stories of protectivity. This can be a tempting way of valuing disabled people in working life but can be problematic because it represents a form of patronising akin to charity.

48As justification theory is rarely used in disability studies, we provide some final thoughts on its usefulness. We believe justification theory enables a sensitivity in the dimensions we raised in the analysis. Dimensions in the data could be interpreted within a wider framework, such as the narrative of protectivity legitimated by the domestic value order. More puzzling were conceptualisations of the civic order of worth. Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) presentation of the civic order represents both welfare state arrangements and forms of collective action. Our analysis indicates that tensions and contradictions exist internally in the civic order of worth and not only between value orders. This tension points to a rather well-known dilemma, skilfully described by Bickenbach and Cooper (2003: 13): “The aim of disability advocacy is often to achieve a state of social equality in which disability does not matter; yet the means for achieving equality often requires disability to matter for political solidarity.”

49In this study, we listened to the stories and reflections of employers. However, the stories and reflections of employees with disabilities stand out as important to pursue in future studies. Do employees experience the worth of being productive citizens in the same way that their employers (using a degree of paternalistic language) portray them? Alternatively, do employees with disabilities find themselves deprived of possibilities of decommodification, preferring more welfare in order to pursue a fulfilling and autonomous life with full citizenship?

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Camilla Stub Lundberg et Per Koren Solvang, « Reframing disability in the labour market: narratives of value told by employers »Alter, 16-3 | 2022, 23-39.

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Camilla Stub Lundberg et Per Koren Solvang, « Reframing disability in the labour market: narratives of value told by employers »Alter [En ligne], 16-3 | 2022, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2022, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL :

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Camilla Stub Lundberg

Work Research Institute, Oslo Metropolitan University

Per Koren Solvang

Department of Rehabilitation Science and Health Technology, Oslo Metropolitan University

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