Most college students find themselves at a crossroads upon graduating, and the transition from academic life to a career may prove to be a difficult time for many. Students with disabilities, however, face additional challenges after college. According to recent BLS data, persons 16 years and older with a disability have an employment rate of 19%, while those with no disability have an employment rate of about 66% among the civilian noninstitutional population. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available that deal specifically with the college-to-career path for graduates with disabilities.
In-college preparation is a crucial element of the career planning process for students with disabilities. Many campuses offer a variety of work-based learning options for students to explore, including internships, cooperative learning experiences, and independent study opportunities. Disability career resources are also increasingly abundant at many colleges and universities.
Students with disabilities can make the college-to-career transition a smooth one with the assistance of career counseling, job search workshops, and career plan development on campus. This guide provides career planning resources for students with disabilities who are just beginning their job search.
The largest minority group in the world, people with disabilities are sometimes underestimated in the workforce, even though they are often just as capable — if not more — of completing the tasks required. General misunderstanding of a student's disability by others can present a challenge in the career planning process.
Common challenges for job-seeking college students with disabilities
|Discrimination by employers in the hiring process||Limited understanding of job-seekers' rights|
|Lack of disability resources at a student's college||Lack of access to internships|
|Lack of career planning resources at college||Lack of access to career counseling services|
|Inability to meet specific skills required of job||Limited local jobs available to match their skill set|
|Underdeveloped leadership/teamwork skills||Limited experience in communicating with employers|
|Fear of disclosing their disability on job applications||Limited relevant professional experience on resume|
Career Preparation Prior to Graduation
Taking advantage of career resources at a college or university is important for any student, whether or not they are living with disabilities. Career-prep in particular is essential to those who want to gain experience and stand out when entering the job market. Below are some of the most common career-prep resources for students.
Work-based learning prepares students to apply their academic skills in a professional environment by helping them choose a career and develop the personal and professional skills needed for that field. Work-based learning is often a high priority among students, as it combines academic knowledge with crucial social and interpersonal skills that they may not learn elsewhere. Employers tend to prefer graduates with the following work-based learning experience:
By completing an internship, students can gain invaluable experience in the workplace, explore career options, and possibly network in their field of choice. Several internship opportunities are available specifically for students with disabilities who want to show off their skills in a workplace setting. The Emerging Leaders Internship Program for College Students with Disabilities, coordinated by the National Disability Council, places students with disabilities in competitive internship programs that help them gain leadership and networking skills. The AAAS Entrypoint! internship program is also aimed specifically towards students with apparent and non-apparent disabilities studying science, engineering, math, computer science, and business.
- Independent Study
With the guidance of an academic advisor, students may enter an independent study program, designed to provide academic credit through a personalized study track outside of a traditional school schedule. Independent study programs often focus on a research paper or project. This is particularly beneficial to students with disabilities, as they can tailor coursework around their needs. Independent study also demonstrates to future employers skills like self-discipline and organization.
- Cooperative work experiences
Through collaborations between students, faculty, employers, and staff, cooperative work experiences allow students to gain paid, practical work experience as a trainee or temporary worker at a participating business or organization. In some cases, academic credit is available as part of the experience. This program provides the student with experience in their field of choice and can also help potential employers gauge teamwork and interpersonal skills.
- Job Shadowing
During the job shadowing process, students observe an employee in a position or field of interest to them. While they do not typically provide academic credit, job shadowing programs allow students to learn about every aspect of the day-to-day responsibilities of a specific role. Job shadowing can provide an especially realistic and intense perspective on potential careers. This can help students with disabilities, in particular, gauge whether they have the specific skill set required of a job.
- Service Learning
Service learning encompasses a variety of non-paid, volunteer learning opportunities. These positions are designed to show students the rewards of becoming engaged with their environment by giving back through community service projects. They may or may not yield academic credits. These opportunities are useful for all students, as they show potential employers a student's willingness to gain enrichment on both a personal and professional level.
Extracurricular involvement is another important supplement to academic study on the college-to-career path. Career services at most colleges will encourage student participation in extracurricular activities in order to show potential employers a wide variety of skills, including engagement and camaraderie outside of traditional academia. The following are just some examples of extracurricular activities that may be attractive to employers:
- Academic and Professional Organizations
Involvement in academic and professional organizations, from the math club to the FFA, shows not only a commitment to professional growth in a student's field of choice, but an effort toward career networking while still in school. Employers are typically impressed to see students considering early career options and forging professional relationships before graduation. Many schools' alumni associations are essentially an extension of the academic and professional ties created by students while studying on campus.
- Volunteer Activities
Volunteer- and service-related activities include community service projects, participating in charitable events, donating time and/or services, and helping others in need without anticipating anything in return. Students who volunteer contribute to their community and gain invaluable team-building skills. Service-related activities also look great on a resume.
- Student Government
Participating in student government activities is a great way for students to practice leadership and teamwork skills. Whether they participate behind-the-scenes of the electoral/political process or pursue an elected position on campus, students with experience in this area may be especially qualified for similar career paths in state or local government.
- Athletic Activities
Joining a sports team or taking part in an athletic activity on campus is a form of team-building and helps build interpersonal skills. Depending on the student's disability and whether it is possible for them to take part in physical athletic activity, this can be a great way to incorporate healthy habits into their routine while adding a high-energy extracurricular to their resume.
- Greek Life
Belonging to a fraternity or sorority can instill a sense of camaraderie and fellowship among students, but membership in such an organization also requires active participation in charitable activities, community service events and fundraising efforts, all of which can enhance a traditional resume.
Career Center and Career Counseling
Taking advantage of career centers and career counseling services is a must for all students. A 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index Report found that 52% of students polled visited their school's career center. And students who visited a career center throughout their studies were more likely to find employment after graduation, with a rate of 67% for visitors and 59% for graduates who did not use any career services. The services provided by career centers are essential to not only career planning, but also postgraduate life. Below are some examples of the most beneficial career center resources for job-seeking students:
- Career Exploration
Career counselors help students by guiding them towards a career they are interested in. They can also help students assess their skills in that area, which may prove particularly beneficial to students with disabilities. Identifying personal strengths is key in this process, as this not only helps students to realize and pursue career options that are a good fit, but also encourages them to learn how to present a positive, confident image to future employers.
- Job interview Preparation
Job interview preparation helps students with disabilities in a very specific way. Career center staff are often the first professionals to explain workers' rights to disabled students seeking a job. This service is crucial for those who are unsure how (or if) they should handle disclosure of their disability and/or any disability-related questions during the interview.
- Resume and Cover Letter
Resumes and cover letters are often the first materials a potential employer sees when considering job candidates. Knowing what to include and what to omit from a resume, as well as how to draft an appropriate cover letter, are skills that need specific guidance from a qualified career counselor or specialist.
- On Campus Recruiting
On-campus career services are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to college-to-career potential for students with disabilities. Beyond local one-on-one services provided by career counselors, these services are far-reaching and can lead to substantial long-term employment. Students are exposed to career fairs, recruitment events, and alumni mixers through participation in career center services.
- Getting Connected
Many organizations offer a variety of support tools for students and graduates with disabilities. Those seeking additional resources to begin their job search or review their workers' rights may choose to join a union or career-specific disability agency to discuss their options. Some schools even offer support groups for students with disabilities.
Ruth Wilson, MA, BCET, is a certified high school principal and board-certified educational therapist. She founded The Polytech, a private school that combines career pathway instruction with high school graduation requirements, allowing students aged 16-26 to earn a diploma, college credit, and industry certificates all at the same time. Ruth has extensive experience working with students with learning disabilities, attention disorders, highly gifted capabilities, neurodiversity, and mental health issues.
- What are some of the unique challenges students with disabilities face as they begin their job searches?
Executive Functioning: Students with executive functioning issues have trouble staying organized and managing time. The same issues that cause a student who completed a homework assignment to fail to turn it in will also appear during the job search. Many students struggle with keeping a calendar and understanding time, so the whole scheduling process can become overwhelming. It's not uncommon for a student to get called for an interview and then not show up because they forgot or wrote down the wrong time.
It's especially problematic when they are applying for the same position at multiple places, and missing a detail during a job search can inadvertently cost the student the position. I've heard parents express frustration when they agree to drive the student to an interview, but at the designated time, the student can't remember which company.
Executive function issues also can cause a student with a disability to misinterpret directions or miss the big picture. One of my students listed his availability to work as only on Sunday afternoons, from 2:00 and later, thinking that he might have a date on a Friday or a Saturday night. Once we talked about the difference between a job application and an actual work schedule, he agreed to broaden his availability to offer some time every day, which at least gave him a chance of being considered.
Processing Speed: Interviewing becomes especially challenging when a student needs additional time to formulate an answer, and students who feel pressured to respond more quickly may become frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed.
To help prevent becoming overloaded, I have my students practice a fallback answer that will work well for virtually any question they don't know the answer to, such as, "That's an interesting question. I'll need a minute to think about it." Most of the time, the interviewer will move on to another question and not hold the student responsible for an answer, and the student can relax a bit knowing that they responded intelligently and respectfully.
Note: This also works in class when the student is unexpectedly called upon during a discussion!
Anxiety: Anxiety is natural for anyone called in for an interview, but it can also cause significant problems well before that stage. I have seen students shut down when filling out an application after running into a question they don't know the answer to. Taking an application home to complete privately or using an online form so that it can first be reviewed by a trusted friend, parent, or tutor [can help]. Reassuring the student that they have completely and accurately represented their information does help them find the confidence to move forward with the next step.
There are multiple questions that are quite familiar to an adult job seeker but completely foreign and anxiety-inducing in first-time applications. For example, the question about whether or not the applicant has any convictions can cause alarm, or at least a conversation about whether or not a parking ticket counts. Students also need to be prepared to reply that they are legally eligible to work in the US and to understand what documents are needed to demonstrate this.
Social Skills and Advocacy: Many teens find jobs through word of mouth, seeing a "help wanted" notice posted at places they frequent, or asking an existing employee if the organization is accepting applications. When a student struggles in social situations, these effective job search avenues may not be available.
Practicing how to ask about job openings and having a canned response to thank the person regardless of their answer may not feel comfortable at first, but does pay off for most teens. Most teens don't have much experience but are friendly, energetic, and polite, so will make a good impression if they can muster the courage to talk to a current employee.
An interviewer may get the wrong impression when a student with a disability hesitates to make eye contact or shake hands, and social awkwardness can become even more pronounced when there are several people in the room. Again, practicing how to respond to questions in advance can help students to be evaluated on the quality of their answers and not symptoms of their disability.
- How can students with disabilities best utilize their university disability service centers?
The university disability service center is really the first place to practice many of the skills needed for a successful job search. The student has to make an appointment, go in, introduce him- or herself, and discuss the services that are available and how they match with what they need. All of this can be uncomfortable, but the disability service center staff are professional and generally very friendly people who want to help, so students really shouldn't overlook using this resource as a part of their job search processes.
Also, many prospective employers will seek recent graduates by contacting the career center and/or individual departments. The disability service center often coordinates with each department head, so they can save the student a lot of leg work by narrowing down other people within the university who might have important job leads or provide more information about specific job requirements.
- What online resources would you suggest students with disabilities use throughout their job searches?
Some of the traditional online resources don't work as well for those seeking their first jobs, and they can become intimidating when students don't have a long work history, but they can still be very valuable to help students understand the responsibilities that go with many entry-level positions. Therefore, using a site like Indeed.com can provide access to a wide range of job descriptions and allow students to view openings within their communities.
- When — if at all — should a student disclose their disability with prospective employers?
There is no single right answer to this, and my rule of thumb is if the student will need an accommodation, then it can be helpful to explain the reason why. However, the student should choose carefully who to disclose to and give a context for what it means in their situation.
Some diagnoses, such as autism or ADHD, present very differently in different people, so the label is far less important than helping the employer understand how you can do the job effectively. Thus, listing a disability on your resume is rarely helpful and not necessary.
There is also no way to control who has access to that information, so waiting to learn more about the job and the company and then, if it appears to be a good fit, talking directly with someone you would be working with can make sense and put some context around the type of work they can expect from you.
For example, "I understand that I'll need to memorize the menu and pass the test on my first day. I can do this, but I have a language-based disability, so I'll need some time to hear the items and practice first. I'm not sure how quickly you need someone in this position and I would love for it to be me if I can have one week to prepare before I'm tested." It lets the manager understand the accommodation needed but also shows that the applicant is dedicated to a positive outcome and able to fulfill job requirements.
- What advice would you give to students with disabilities who are at the first stages of their job searches?
Don't delay! The process can take longer than desired, so nothing is gained by waiting for the perfect time or opening. Even applying for a job you don't necessarily understand can help you become familiar with the process and perfect your resume and cover letter. Most students say that their first attempts were clumsy and not their best work, so using as much time as needed to become comfortable with sending out resumes and talking with potential employers can eventually lead to a more ideal position and ensure you are ready when the opportunity comes up.
- What advice do you give to students who are feeling discouraged during their job searches?
The job search process can be frustrating for everyone, and most job seekers report putting in multiple applications to get called for a single interview. Don't become discouraged or assume that you won't be employable. Don't even put it in your head that the disability is the reason for a low response. When a job is the right fit, it works well for everyone!
My observation is many of my students have struggled with the job search and interview processes, but once landing a job, they often tend to stay in it for a long time and perform well. You want the prospective employer to understand who you are and the skills you bring to the organization. Persistence does pay off.
- Any final thoughts for us?
Just like with any traditional academic subject, practice and the ability to move a little outside of your comfort zone can make a big difference in getting a successful outcome. A coach, mentor, or tutor can guide the process and help the student avoid procrastination as well as frustration. This can also be someone who celebrates with you once you land the job!
Know Your Rights
Under The American with Disabilities Act of 1990, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any qualified employee because of a disability. This law is designed to protect workers with a recorded substantial physical or mental disability, or history of such a disability, that limits or restricts their ability to perform day-to-day tasks in life and work. Workers without a disability but who are perceived to have a disability by their employers are also protected by this law.
All employers of 15 or more workers, including private organizations and state and local government agencies, as well as employment agencies and labor- and labor-management organizations, must abide by the ADA. The law also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, including minor modifications to the workplace, work schedules or relevant equipment or devices, in order to maintain the same benefits and privileges for all workers.
Disclosure of a disability is a personal choice. Should a job applicant decide to disclose his or her disability, there is also no right or wrong way to do it. Workers with a disability who do choose to disclose this information may want to consider how their disability may or may not affect the specific functions required of their job, as well as the potential accommodations their employer may need to consider in order for them to perform their job duties. The U.S. Department of Labor emphasizes that both the decision to disclose and the appropriate timing of disclosure are up to the candidate. Each applicant can decide whether or not to disclose their disability when they feel the time is right, which may be during the application process, after they are hired, or any time in between.
Tips & advice for the job hunt
Be sure to emphasize strengths and leadership qualities on your resume. If your resume contains work gaps due to your disability, consider writing "illness and recovery" as an explanation, which shows the employer you are now recovered and ready to start work again. Resources such as the Job Accommodation Network host blogs specifically for job-seekers with disabilities to discuss resumes and the job-searching process.
The Cover Letter
Always maintain a positive attitude throughout your cover letter, and discuss your abilities specifically for the job required. If there are gaps in your work history or you experienced extended leaves of absence due to your disability, avoid over-explaining in your cover letter, as this can seem defensive. Instead, stay brief and to-the-point about the skills and talents you can offer in the workplace.
Searching for Jobs
Under protection of the ADA, you are free to search for any job. However, depending on the severity of your disability and whether you choose to disclose it to potential employers, you may feel more comfortable starting your search with an organization dedicated to assisting those with disabilities, such as the SSA's Ticket to Work site, or your state's local One-Stop Disability Navigator initiative.
Before your interview, decide your position on whether or not to disclose your disability. Also, be prepared to answer any questions that may come up regarding a lack of experience, work gaps, or other discrepancies on your resume or application, if they are related to your disability. You may want to practice a mock-interview with someone you trust. Be flexible, and always stay on the positive side of all interview topics.
Additional Resources for Job-Seekers with Disabilities
- Work Service - This site sponsors work fairs and recruitment events accessible to those with physical disabilities, and hosts searchable national and international job boards.
- Disabled Person - A job bank site created through a partnership between the Disabled Person Network and hundreds of physical-disability-friendly employers nationwide.
- Disabled World - This job bank site offers work-from-home opportunities for employees with physical disabilities.
- Ind Govt Jobs - IndianGovernmentJobs.com posts jobs in this sector available to veterans and workers with physical disabilities.
- Careercast Disability - This site hosts a comprehensive database of jobs, as well as links to information about disability-accessible jobs in the workplace through the Talent Works program.
- DeafTEC - This site profiles hearing-impaired STEM professionals in the workplace, and offers job postings for deaf and hard-of-hearing STEM workers.
- RIT National Technical Institute for the Deaf - This site features available jobs, job fairs, interview advice, and more for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals at the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - This page features an extensive FAQ section specifically about deafness and hearing impairments in the workplace under the ADA, hosted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- Hearing Loss Association of America - This organization hosts an annual symposium for employment issues for people with hearing loss, and offers an employment toolkit and additional resources for those seeking jobs.
- Deaf Counseling Center - This site features tips and resources to understand your rights and fight workplace discrimination against deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
- CareerConnect Virtual Worksite - This site outlines reasonable accommodations specific to employees with visual disabilities that may be required of employers in the workplace.
- Vision Aware - This site, sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, offers various resources for emotional, medical, and personal support for those with visual disabilities, and explores methods of adaptation and reasonable accommodations for visually impaired workers on the job.
- Perkins School for the Blind - This page explains Perkins' recently launched pre-employment program, focused on improving college-to-career skills for visually impaired students.
- Guide Dogs for the Blind - This site explains the many corporate giving campaigns and employment recruitment efforts nationwide that are centered on providing equal opportunities for workers who are blind or have a visual disability.
- Work Without Limits - This Massachusetts partnership is dedicated to providing assistive technology and other reasonable accommodations to employees with visual disabilities in the workplace.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities - This site features employment and internship opportunities focused on learning disability education and disabled individuals in the workplace.
- Learning Disabilities Association of America - This page features extensive information intended for both employees and employers about reasonable accommodations in the workplace for those with learning disabilities.
- Disability.gov - This comprehensive government site features information about job training programs, available positions, and workers' rights for employees with learning and other disabilities.
- Job Accommodation Network - This site includes information for both employees and employers about reasonable accommodations for workers with learning disabilities, as well as a comprehensive job bank.
- Understood - Founded by the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Understood is committed to providing a broad range of resources for personal and community support for students with learning disabilities.
Psychiatric Disabilities/Mental Health Disabilities
- National Alliance on Mental Illness - The NAMI website offers a comprehensive section on best practices for employees with mental health disabilities.
- California Department of Health Care Services - Under the state's health care department, California's Mental Health Cooperative Programs provide employment support services to help workers with psychiatric disabilities enter or re-enter the local workforce.
- Disability.gov - This site contains comprehensive information about employees with mental health disabilities in the workforce, including their rights under the ADA, reasonable accommodations, and filing a complaint.
- We Can Work Campaign - This program is the premiere all-inclusive employment services tool for job-seekers with mental health disabilities in New York, sponsored by the state's Office of Mental Health.
- Skills Unlimited, Inc. - This organization provides training programs, counseling and placement services, among other services, for job-seekers with mental health disabilities.
- Employees' Practical Guide to Negotiating and Requesting Reasonable Accommodations - The Job Accommodation Network provides comprehensive services, including advice on how to negotiate and request reasonable accommodations on-the-job, for workers with disabilities.
- Economic Independence Through Jobs & Self-Employment - This job bank offers federal jobs at government agencies, as well as a variety of public- and private-sector opportunities and other support services, for workers with disabilities.
- Ability Jobs - This comprehensive site is for both job-seekers and employers interested in supporting equal opportunities in all fields for workers with disabilities.
- A Guide for People with Disabilities Seeking Employment - This site features official information included in the ADA for those receiving social security compensation as well as job-seekers with disabilities.
- Project Hired - Based in Northern California, this organization is dedicated to providing job training and placement services for job-seekers with disabilities in the local workforce.