Career Guide for Students With Disabilities

Discover the strategies college students with disabilities can use to determine a career path, search for a job, and navigate barriers to employment.

portrait of Bernard Grant, Ph.D.
by Bernard Grant, Ph.D.

Published on October 26, 2021 · Updated on June 15, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Career Guide for Students With Disabilities

Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in February 2021 showed that 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020, while the rate of employment for nondisabled people was 61.8%. When seeking employment after college, students with disabilities face many barriers, including lack of mentorship and discriminatory hiring practices. This guide serves as a career resource that can help disabled students determine a career path, providing strategies for a successful job search.

Barriers for Students With Disabilities on the Job Search

Physical Barriers

Physical barriers refer to structural obstacles that make an environment physically inaccessible for some people. These physical barriers can include curbs or steps that may limit a person's ability to use a sidewalk or access a building. Physical barriers also include inaccessible transportation and a lack of wheelchair ramps and elevators.

Communication Barriers

Communication may be a barrier to employment for those whose disabilities relate to hearing, writing, reading, comprehension, and/or speaking. This can include people who use augmentative and alternative communication. These barriers include technical language, videos without closed captioning, oral communication without American Sign Language, and a lack of screen readers and braille.

Stigma, Misperceptions, and Negative Attitudes

In 2019, the employment rate for nondisabled people was more than double the employment rate for people with disabilities. Many employers have low expectations of applicants who have disabilities. Employers who don't believe these job seekers can contribute as meaningfully as nondisabled applicants may hire a nondisabled person over a disabled person.

Policy Barriers

Employees with disabilities may need more time to complete a task. Or they may need longer lunch breaks, more frequent breaks, or a flexible schedule that allows them to work from home half the week. Many times, citing workplace policies, employers fail these employees by not providing them with appropriate accommodations.

Lack of Opportunities

Due to all of these barriers, many disabled people find that there aren't as many opportunities for them. For example, they may not have had access to internships or co-ops, or they may have been unable to maintain their positions. This could result in a lack of confidence or limited work history.

What is the biggest concern you hear from students with disabilities applying for jobs? question-mark-circle
Portrait of Brendan Wolff

Brendan Wolff

Head of School, Achievement Unlocked, Brooklyn, New York

"Will asking for the accommodations I need cost me the position I want? Self-advocacy is one of the most valuable skills a person can learn, and it is particularly useful to anyone who has a disability, whether hidden or visible.

Students should research a company ahead of time to get a sense of its business culture and stated values or mission. They should also research the job's duties and responsibilities and look up common interview questions in that industry, and prepare responses to each one.

Focus on what talent and knowledge you can bring to the company, and show them how you will be a valuable asset. In the initial interviewing stage you do not need to disclose any personal or medical information unless it's necessary as part of the application process."

Professional Development for Disabled Students

While ideally you'll have a presentable work history, you should take time to target your career interests, learning what type of work you'd like to do and where you might fit. You should then take time to prepare for your job search, perhaps researching internships and graduate programs.

Determining Career Interests

The best way to determine your career path is to follow your interests, keeping your skills in mind. Consider what kind of work you'd enjoy and where you'd like to work. Also, look into typical salary expectations. Here's a list of online job boards and communities for job seekers with disabilities:

Preparing for the Job Search

The first contact you'll make with an employer will likely be through some form of written communication. The main documents you'll need while job seeking are a resume, cover letter, and list of references. Some companies don't ask for references. Also, if you use a recruiter or certain websites, such as LinkedIn or Indeed, you'll find many jobs that don't require cover letters.

If, however, you need to write a cover letter and include a reference list, make sure to format them in the same style as your resume to create a cohesive package. If you plan to disclose during the interview, consider carrying documentation of your disability.

Internship Programs

Office of Disability Employment Policy

The Workforce Recruitment Program, located at ODEP, is a recruitment and referral program that connects college students and recent graduates with disabilities with summer internships and permanent jobs. Check your school's Career Services and Disability Services office to find out if your school is a participant.

American Association of People With Disabilities

AAPD's summer internship program places college students, law and graduate students, and recent graduates with disabilities in paid summer internships in Washington, D.C. Interns are paired with a mentor, given transportation to and from D.C., and provided with a stipend.

National Business and Disability Council

NBDC runs the Emerging Leaders Internship Program, which places undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities in nationwide internships. Interns are given opportunities for networking and leadership development.

Cornell University - Student Disability Services

The Workforce Recruitment Program at Cornell University offers students and recent graduates with disabilities a variety of internship and full-time employment opportunities in the federal government.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

AAAS's Entry Point! is an internship program for students with disabilities who have demonstrated skills in STEM fields. Applicants must be U.S. citizens with a minimum GPA of 3.0.

Building Your Network

Many jobs are filled through networking. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many professionals are working from home, which means they are relying on online support. Virtual hiring saw an increase during the pandemic, and it is likely here to stay. This means more recruiters are turning to the internet to find their new hires.

You can make accounts with sites like Inclusively, Mentra, Specialisterne, and Zavikon.These organizations and others like them help companies find neurodivergent talent and skilled workers with disabilities — they're changing hiring processes. Specialisterne, for example, offers a recruitment process that allows neurodivergent candidates to work on projects rather than participate in interviews.

All of these companies offer mentorship and accommodations, including the ability to work from home.

Factors to Consider During Your Career Search

Your Rights as a Person With Disabilities

People with disabilities have rights. You do not have to disclose your disability during the application process, and it is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire or promote you due to a disability. You do not have to answer questions about your condition, and you have the right to accommodations.

Disclosing Your Disability to an Employer

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities, either through the hiring process or during that person's employment. Again, you are not required to disclose. Employers, however, are not required to provide accommodations if you do not disclose.

Mandated Employer Accommodations

If you do disclose your disability, whether during the interview process or while on the job, your employer is required to provide accommodations unless the accommodations cause "undue hardship" to the employer. Accommodations may include text-to-speech software, adjustable furniture, flexible work schedules, and the use of headphones and sensory devices.

Discrimination in the Workplace

Discrimination on the basis of a person's disability or perceived disability is prohibited under federal law. If you've experienced discrimination on the job, report it to a senior employee or a trusted colleague. You can also file an ADA complaint. If you've experienced criminal harassment, you should report it to authorities or take legal action.

What is one resource students with disabilities should know about as they navigate the job search process? question-mark-circle
Portrait of Brendan Wolff

Brendan Wolff

Head of School, Achievement Unlocked, Brooklyn, New York

"Their rights. Anyone who is entering the workforce should familiarize themselves with the basics of the ADA, so they know where and when it is appropriate to inform potential employers of accommodations they might need. Applicants should also know what questions an interviewer can and cannot legally ask and have prepared responses in case such a question is asked. [Responses should] answer the questions but deflect any specific information that the interviewer might be fishing for."

5 Job Search Strategies for Students With Disabilities

1. Seek Inclusive Employers

Get in the habit of reading employers' statements regarding inclusion. If they don't have one, they may not be invested in creating an equitable workplace environment. You could also talk to any of your peers with a disability. What companies do they trust? Which sectors have worked for them? Seek employers who are affirming of people with disabilities.

2. Ask for Feedback

Visit your school's career services office where you can practice your interview skills and find help writing a resume and cover letter. Find a partner to work with, or ask a friend for help. You can also locate people online. Many professionals meet on LinkedIn.

3. Polish Your Documents

Tailor each resume and cover letter specifically to the job you're applying for. And proofread them before sending. Printing out your documents and then writing notes on them can be helpful. This can aid you in catching mistakes you may miss when looking at the documents on a computer screen.

Also, ask for feedback from a trusted peer or family member. Utilize the career center on campus where you can request free services. Accessibility services will likely employ a staff member who works specifically with students with disabilities.

4. Honestly Outline Your Needs Before Applying

Consider your energy levels and salary expectations, and only apply to jobs that match your needs. For instance, if you receive an offer from a job that pays a bit less but allows you to work from home half the week, that may be a worthwhile trade-off. Keep a list of nonnegotiable accommodations you'll need.

5. Consider Employing Yourself

Self-employment is also an option. Many disabled people, unable to find an employer who makes adequate accommodations, turn to entrepreneurship. Some well-known entrepreneurs with disabilities include Daymond John and Richard Branson, though there are countless others making successful careers as business owners and influencers.

How can colleges support students with disabilities in their professional development? question-mark-circle
Portrait of Brendan Wolff

Brendan Wolff

Head of School, Achievement Unlocked, Brooklyn, New York

"Scaffolded exposure — everything from practice interviews to on-site experience. This reduces the element of the unknown, which can provoke anxiety. Career counseling and mentorship programs can be invaluable sources of guidance to a person preparing to enter the workforce. [They] can help you plan a strategic approach to finding the job of your dreams.

If your school has a program specifically geared toward students with disabilities, you should definitely take advantage of those resources. There are also national, state, and local organizations that can guide you to programs, tools, or assistance that address your specific needs."

Additional Resources for Job Seekers With Disabilities

For Students With Physical Disabilities

For Students Who Are Deaf or Have Hearing Loss

For Students With Visual Disabilities

For Students With Learning Disabilities

For Students With Psychiatric or Mental Health Disabilities

General Resources

Meet the Professional

Portrait of Brendan Wolff

Brendan Wolff

Head of School, Achievement Unlocked, Brooklyn, New York

After leaving his job in 2013 as a special education teacher in New York City's District 75, Brendan Wolff founded Allied Achievement to work more closely with the families of students with unique needs. In 2016, at the request of several families, he started the school Achievement Unlocked. He started the school because he saw a need. He wanted to create a nurturing educational environment for students who had been underserved in their previous settings.

In addition to his responsibilities as head of school, Brendan is heavily involved in students' behavioral and social/emotional development. His favorite part of working at the school is helping students find creative solutions to difficult problems and discovering skills they never knew they had in the process.

Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images