Learning to Work

Marjorie Malpiede / September 9, 2016

The supply of college graduates with disabilities is high, as is the demand from diversity-driven employers. Why aren’t more of these students getting jobs?

As colleges and universities continue to promote their job placement rates, there is one employment statistic few schools are talking about: the percentage of their graduates with disabilities who enter the work force. Despite the rising number of students with disabilities who graduate college, those who report to be working remains at around 40 percent.

Carol Glazer, the President of the National Organization on Disability (NOD), believes the poor job placement of students with disabilities is not only a social justice failure, but also a lost opportunity to address the talent needs of today’s employers. NOD has recently formed a partnership with Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD) aimed at changing these employment statistics with an agenda that is as focused on market demand as it is on diversity.

For 30 years, NOD has been striving to increase job opportunities and economic self-sufficiency for the 29 million working- aged Americans with disabilities. Much of their work involves connecting employers seeking to expand their diversity initiatives with work-ready candidates. For employers hoping to hire graduates with disabilities, the challenge has been particularly tough.

“We have employers tell us all the time they just can’t find students with disabilities,” said Glazer. “They will go out and have job fairs and find various minority segments but when it comes to students with disabilities, they get them in ones and twos. They say it is hard to find students who are well-prepared to enter their work force.”

A logical source for these recruiters would be college and university career offices but, according to Glazer, this is part of the problem.

In its 2014 report “Bridging the Employment Gap for Students with Disabilities,” NOD found that at many schools, the career services office, which assists students in preparing for and gaining employment, lacked a connection to the office of disabled student services, which exists with the purpose of ensuring proper accessibility and appropriate academic accommodations for students with disabilities on campus.

“This disconnect leaves a gap,” the report states, “both for employers seeking to diversify their work force and for students with disabilities who are not gaining access to the same services and opportunities as their peers without disabilities.”
As NOD sought expert advice in this area, all roads led to Alan Muir of COSD, who has been working on solving the access problem for the last 17 years.

The organization grew out of research at the University of Tennessee that first identified operational and philosophical disconnects between the offices of career services and disability services as a major barrier to post-graduate employment for students with disabilities.

What began as a small grant at one college has become a national effort to work directly with colleges and universities on a wide range of strategies that seek to better prepare students with disabilities for careers. COSD has developed a network that has grown to over 900 higher education institutions and nearly 600 employers.

The NOD/COSD partnership has yielded some early successes including an annual conference that brings together employers, schools, and students.

This effort to address both sides of the labor force equation includes on-site networking among key stakeholders and panel discussions on preparing students for employment as well as how best to reach them. The two-day conference is upbeat and pro-active but, as these advocates know, the obstacles in this area remain challenging and include everything from lack of coordination to stigma and confidentiality issues to entrenched attitudes regarding workers with disabilities.

High supply, high demand
The National Center on Educational Statistics estimated that in 2011, 11.1 percent of the number of college students on campus have disclosed one or more disabilities and are receiving services from Disability Services. That translates to 1.5 million students. With so many students not disclosing non-apparent disabilities, that number is almost two times higher.

In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act reinstated protections for people with all kinds of disabilities, which had been eroded due to multiple judicial interpretations. These disabilities include “invisible” disabilities such as dyslexia, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. This amended legislation significantly expands the population of students with disabilities and adds another layer of diversity to an already heterogeneous cohort.

Meanwhile, the motivation for hiring graduates with any of these disabilities has never been greater.

In 2014, the Obama administration enacted new rules for Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, requiring employers receiving government contracts to set a 7 percent disabilities goal across all positions, not just those requiring low skills and limited education. This means that employers can no longer satisfy diversity criteria by hiring individuals with disabilities for the loading dock or mail room. According to Glazer, they mean business.

“Corporate America understands that 503 is here and that they need to focus on this,” she said. “The Office of Federal Contract Compliance is not fooling around. They are monitoring businesses, and they will start imposing fines.”

Considering that federal contracting constitutes 25 percent of the nation’s workforce, 503 may do for disability employment what Sarbanes Oxley did for the auditing industry. As Glazer and Muir work aggressively to help businesses achieve both the requirements and the promise of 503, they are helping their partners in higher education eliminate some of the institutional barriers that have kept all parties back. This starts with creating an on-campus employment support system out of what has always been two separate sets of resources.

On one hand, career services professionals are well skilled at preparing students for interviews and developing resumes but lack the disability knowledge and capacity to assist companies that want to recruit these students. They also lack the appropriate training and skills to assist students with disabilities in their career development efforts.

University disability offices that do have the skills to assist students with their careers are often short-staffed and primary focused on the accessibility and accommodations students need to complete their education.

“I don’t think that student affairs administrators have figured out that there is a definite intersection between these two offices and for decades,” Muir said. “We’ve had students falling through the cracks. We need to make sure that both offices are being supported and are educated about the new regulations.”

Muir says his goal has been to push through this by encouraging students with disabilities to access the career services resources that are available to them and to let the disability officers know that their responsibility goes well beyond graduation.

Confidentiality, information, and disclosure
Some say the issue on campus is far more than just a lack of coordination or relevant skills. Historically, students with disabilities looking for jobs were encouraged to hide their disabilities from their potential employers. Stigma surrounding mental health disabilities continues to dissuade many students with disabilities from disclosing them.

Furthermore, NOD notes “career services professionals may feel it is unfair or even illegal to try to identify or serve in a special way students with disabilities, since they are bound by confidentiality rules to protect disability-related information.”

The confluence of these issues is problematic on a number of levels: it keeps students from getting the career support they — and their peers without disabilities— need to gain employment; it renders them invisible to would-be employers who are specifically seeking graduates with disabilities; and it keeps colleges and universities from gathering the information that would allow them to measure students’ progress over time and implement data bases that could be used by employers.

Glazer believes colleges have a responsibility to encourage more students to disclose their disability by communicating the opportunities available to them.

“Instead of telling your students not to disclose,” she said, “you should be telling them they will be desirable, employers will make accommodations for them, and they will be valued members of the team.”

Glazer is also concerned that underlying all of this is a universal lack of acknowledgement that students with disabilities are as capable and deserving of employment as any student, something she calls “the tyranny of low expectations.”

“If you are a college student with disabilities,” she said, “we should be preparing you and training you the way we do all students, and it should probably start back in high school. But instead, we congratulate you for having made it into college and we don’t expect that you should have to — or can — go on to work. When people don’t expect much of you your whole life, you begin not to expect much of yourself.”

But both Glazer and Muir are encouraged that, with the stars aligned on more graduates with disabilities entering the workforce, major change will occur. The partnership recommends a series of practical steps to building a robust pipeline of students that can be accessed by employers.

These include: appointing a liaison from the career services office who is specially trained in the needs of students to work specifically with the disabilities office; creating a voluntary release form for students to sign when registering with the disability office that gives permission to share the student’s name with the career services office; encouraging recruiters to have an on-campus presence and identify themselves as “disability-friendly;” and supporting co-ops and internships specifically for students with disabilities.

Other efforts are aimed at greater engagement on the part of the students themselves and increased education about the value of colleges making this an institutional priority.

“Students with disabilities who find fulfilling positions have proven to be loyal employees as well as grateful alumni,” said Muir. “The schools who get this will have an enormous advantage in meeting many of their goals, including the need to educate and prepare all of their students for success.”