About 60 percent of college graduates with a disability are not employed. Students with disabilities take twice as long to secure a job after graduation than their non-disabled counterparts. Those are two findings in a Harris Survey commissioned by the National Organization on Disability (NOD) and the Kessler Foundation. NOD published the survey results in 2010.
I have a feeling that these circumstances have not substantially changed since then. Yes, the “hiring climate” has improved with the re-bound in the economy from the Great Recession. And under the new federal regulations which set workforce disability hiring goals, employers with federal contracts are actively seeking more graduates with disabilities.
But the NOD-Kessler survey findings identified a basic institutional problem on today’s college campuses that turns out to be a drag on disability employment. Typically, employers who want to hire qualified soon-to-graduate students with disabilities have difficulty finding them – even though those individuals are there (right on campus). The problem is the lack of coordination and communication between the on-campus career services people (who have access to “disability-friendly” employers) and the Disability Student Services people (who have access to soon-to-be job seekers with disabilities).
In its 2014 report, “Bridging the Employment Gap for Students with Disabilities,” NOD describes the situation this way:
“At many institutions of higher education, the career services office, which assists students in preparing for and obtaining internships and employment and are the first line of contact for employers, lack a strong—or any—connection to the office of disabled student services, which ensures proper accessibility and accommodations on campus for students with disabilities.
“This disconnect leaves a gap, both for employers seeking to diversify their workforce and for students with disabilities who are not gaining access to the same services and opportunities as their peers without disabilities.”
In fact, on many large campuses (such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison which I attended), career development services are largely available only at the school level (the School of Business, for instance). My experience tells me the career counselors within each school are usually pressed for time due to heavy case loads and are likely to have little expertise or experience in helping students with disabilities explore their options upon graduation or find viable paths for making a successful school-to work transition.
So, what’s the solution?
In its report, NOD says university career and disability offices throughout the U.S. need to take the following steps:
Collaboration and Communication
Career and disability service offices at colleges and universities should establish a working relationship based on the principles of collaboration and communication.
• Appoint a liaison from the career services office who is specially trained and understands the needs of students to work specifically with the disability office. This will ensure a comprehensive approach to addressing the job search needs of students with disabilities as well as the needs of employers who want to recruit students with disabilities.
• Create 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.
• Implement a tracking system to retain student contact information (for those who have disclosed a disability and given permission by signing a release form). The goal: to measure a student’s progress towards employment and to facilitate employer recruitment efforts.
Such a database can provide career offices with an effective tool to quickly and easily identify students and post-graduate candidates with a specific skill set or area of study, giving employers a real-time talent assessment and a ready pool of qualified candidates. This can level the playing field for students with disabilities by allowing better access to employment opportunities, which are typically directed through career offices.
• Establish cooperative education programs to give students and school administrators the opportunity to test pilot the recruitment and application process before graduation. By identifying early on the hurdles faced by students with disabilities, universities will be able to address many barriers to entry, resulting in better employment outcomes for their students.
Employers and career and disability service offices should integrate disability-focused messaging into all recruitment outreach.
• Use mass emails and text messages to announce job openings to all students and create a special listserv to target students registered with the disability office.
• Create an employer e-card or electronic postcard which a company can send to the university’s career and disability offices to announce job openings and highlight that the fact that the organization is “disability-friendly.”
• Create an online job board on both the disability and career offices’ websites and ask “disability-friendly” employers to mention those job boards within their postings.
Education and Awareness
Public discussion to increase education and awareness is essential for promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life, especially in the workplace.
• On Campus Education: Share statistics with all students, faculty and staff about the number of students on campus with a disability. Be sure to provide information about apparent and non-apparent disabilities and disability disclosure. Ensure that students are aware of the job resources available through the career and disability offices and remind them of the companies that promote “disability-friendly” working environments. This kind of outreach can be especially important for students with disabilities who have not disclosed their status and may encourage them to do so without fear of exclusion.
• Recruitment Education: Ensure employers have an on campus presence at recruiting events and workshops. Encourage them to identify themselves as “disability-friendly,” possibly through a symbol (for instance, a colored ribbon or sticker badge on a representative’s lapel).
• Policy Awareness: Stay abreast of Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) regulations and the implications of those regulations for employers as well as the opportunities they will provide for students with disabilities and the career offices that serve them. For more information, visit www.dol.gov/ofccp.
These concrete recommendations are helpful. But I would add this student reminder to the NOD report: As one of today’s 1.4 million college students with disabilities, you must also accept the responsibility for changing, breaking through or stepping around the institutionalized barriers identified by the NOD research and report. Acquiring and continually updating career management skills are crucial to on-the-job success because “no one else is going to do it for you” in today’s temporary-work world where job holders are “free agents” and employee turnover is high.
Individuals with a disability often run up against roadblocks to getting hired not only because they encounter institutionalized barriers but also because they are using outdated employment models and job marketing methods. You cannot expect to do well in today’s work climate without access to contemporary career management tools, knowledge about how to use them effectively and insight about how to modify them so disability becomes a competitive edge instead of a disadvantage in the minds of hiring managers.
Copyright © 2015. Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC. All rights reserved
Jim Hasse (www.jimhasse.com), Global Career Development Facilitator, has compiled and edited the recommendations of HR experts and the personal observations of both jobseekers and hiring managers into Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (www.perfectlyable.com/), a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook for hiring managers published by AMACOM (September 2010), the publishing arm of the American Management Association. He’s the founder of www.cerebral-palsy-career-builders.com, a comprehensive career coaching guide for parents of youngsters with cerebral palsy, and owner of Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC, which develops win-win direct mail fundraisers for champions of disability employment.