Expert Q&A: Employment for People With Disabilities

This article covers employment resources for individuals with disabilities and what college students with disabilities can do to prepare for the workforce.
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Updated on March 1, 2023
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October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and as college seniors with disabilities begin their final year of school, they may be wondering how to best prepare for the workforce.

Despite progress, employee disability discrimination remains a problem for many Americans. To help address this issue, we talked to Annie Tulkin, founder and director of Accessible College, a national organization that provides college transition support for students with physical disabilities and health conditions.

Tulkin was the associate director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University for nearly six years. In that position, she supported undergraduate, graduate, and medical students with physical disabilities and health conditions and oversaw academic support services for the entire student body.

Tulkin spoke to BestColleges about employee disability discrimination, employment resources for individuals with disabilities, and steps college students can take to secure accommodations and know their legal rights.

Interview With Annie Tulkin

Founder and Director of Accessible College

Portrait of Annie Tulkin

Annie Tulkin

Annie has worked in the field of disability for over 10 years. She holds a bachelor's degree in secondary education from DePaul University, a master's in special education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a certificate in health coaching from Georgetown University. Annie was also a Peace Corps Volunteer (Mongolia, 2003-05) and a Fulbright Fellow (Mongolia, 2007-08).

What are the biggest challenges in employment for people with disabilities?

The challenges for employment vary for people with disabilities based on the disability. For some people with visible disabilities, such as a wheelchair user or a person with an assistance animal, the challenges might be related to an employer's perception of people with disabilities. The perception might be that they can't do the work or that the employer will have to provide costly accommodations. This could result in discrimination during the interview process.

For people with disabilities that are less visible, the challenges may be different. They might choose to seek out specific employers who are known to be more friendly to people with disabilities and/or seek out more flexible work environments, depending on the type of disability that they have.

Which law prohibits employment discrimination based on disability, and what does it guarantee?

The Americans with Disabilities Act has two sections that prohibit employment discrimination:

Title 1: Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits private employers with 15 or more employees, State and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

See more on the ADA Website

Title II: Title II applies to State and local government entities and, in subtitle A, protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities provided by State and local government entities. Under Title II, state and local government entities that provide employment and vocational services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities must provide those services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of persons with disabilities. Historically, many states have provided such employment services to individuals with disabilities in unnecessarily segregated settings, such as sheltered workshops, where individuals with disabilities work at rote tasks for sub-minimum wage with other individuals with disabilities.

See more on the ADA Website

If a person felt that they were discriminated against by a state or local government or a public accommodation (e.g., a private business, including restaurants, doctor's offices, retail stores, hotels, etc.), they can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Annie explains how to navigate the Americans with Disabilities Act at work.

How prevalent is employee disability discrimination, and is it an issue on college campuses?

Observationally, disability discrimination does exist and it is an issue. However, it manifests at different times in the employment process. For example, it may arise during an interview, or it could come up once a person has the job and they request a reasonable accommodation.

Regarding employment on a college campus, the college — as a federally funded employer — has to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In most workplaces, including colleges, there is a process for requesting workplace accommodations. Not all human resources professionals are trained to navigate accommodations requests, and this can sometimes lead to challenges. Luckily, there are many resources available to support both the employee and the employer.

What employment support is there for people with disabilities?

The federal government operates a number of programs to support people with disabilities in finding a job. A comprehensive list of resources can be found on the Campaign for Disability Employment website. It includes information on the ADA, along with programs and websites for finding a job.

Do ADA accommodations apply to college students? How can they help students land a job after they graduate?

Colleges and universities provide accommodations to students with disabilities under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This is different from high school, where students with disabilities may have received accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Students who receive academic and housing accommodations in college typically have to go through the university process to request accommodations, much like a person with a disability would have to do when requesting workplace accommodations.

There are a number of programs set up to help college students with disabilities gain experience and secure employment after graduation. Here are a few opportunities:

How do you tell an employer about a disability? Should I disclose my disability to my employer?

The answer to this question depends on the disability and the person. People with visible disabilities are automatically disclosing by showing up to the interview. If a person has an invisible disability, they will have to decide whether or not to disclose. This is a personal decision.

As with non-disabled people, it helps to rehearse interview questions and practice your "pitch." People with disabilities have the added complexity of deciding whether or not to address their disability in the interview. Some people choose to make it part of their stories.

If a person did not disclose it in the interview, they can choose whether or not to disclose once they have been hired. If they need an accommodation because of a disability, such as assistive technology, a flexible schedule, or a modified workspace, the employee will need to follow the process to request an accommodation. Typically, this is outlined in the human resources manual, or it can be found by contacting the HR manager.

Can an employer fire you for having a disability?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, there are three conditions under which a person with a disability may be fired under the ADA:

  1. the termination is unrelated to the disability; or
  2. the employee does not meet legitimate requirements for the job, such as performance or production standards, with or without a reasonable accommodation; or
  3. because of the employee's disability, he or she poses a direct threat to health or safety in the workplace.

What advice do you have about employment for people with disabilities?

It's important for people with disabilities to know their rights. The federal government has a number of tools to assist people in learning about the ADA and disability disclosure.

Listen to Annie's employment advice for people with disabilities.

Helpful Sites

What are the best employment resources for individuals with disabilities?

Aside from the sites I mentioned previously that are all ADA- and employment-focused, I would also recommend that people with disabilities connect with other people with disabilities to brainstorm, vent, and share stories. Sites like The Mighty, AbleThrive, and SpinalPedia allow people to engage on topics like employment and hear about other people's experiences.

What can disabled students do in college to be successful professionally?

Students with disabilities can engage in the same processes as their non-disabled peers. They can connect with the college's career center and apply for internships/jobs. Students can also use college as an opportunity to hone their self-advocacy skills by requesting academic and housing accommodations.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about legal issues.