Colleges reexamine career services to boost employment of students with disabilities

By Sharita Forrest Education Editor University of Illinois News

Students work on their career strategies and plans during a group session with Allison Frees-Williams, center left, a career development specialist; and Tina Cowsert, center right, a deaf and hard of hearing/blind low vision disability specialist, both staff members with Disability Resources and Educational Services at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Photo by Fred Zwicky for University of Illinois)

Students with disabilities are the fastest growing population on college campuses, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Yet, only 16 percent of these young adults will earn a bachelor’s degree or more compared with 39 percent of their non-disabled peers. And they are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed, according to the Annual Report on People with Disabilities in America 2020.

Rectifying these disparities in degree attainment and employment for students with disabilities requires fundamental changes in how career and disability services operate on many university campuses, a team of disability scholars suggests.

Although the young adult years are typically about discovering one’s passions and exploring jobs that align with one’s talents and interests, the scholars said students with disabilities may find their parents and career services staff steering them toward occupations that “fit” their perceived limitations rather than their abilities and ambitions.

“Too often these college students’ career aspirations are negatively shaped by the limiting attitudes of family, campus policies and society to lock in an identified career,” said first author Chang-kyu Kwon, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“The framework we propose is targeted career services that provide individualized support to students with disabilities so they can make career choices that are consistent with their personal values and life purpose,” Kwon said.

The team described their proposed approach and the numerous obstacles these students face in a practice brief published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Kwon’s co-authors were Sarah S. Guadalupe, an instructor and field coordinator in social work at the University of South Florida; and doctoral student Matthew Archer and Darlene A. Groomes, a professor of human development and child studies and associate dean of the School of Education and Human Services, both at Oakland University.

College students with disabilities have reported in some studies that their career services policies and services are shaped by able-ist attitudes – bias toward serving students who don’t have disabilities, the researchers said.

Therefore, these students may go to great lengths to hide their distinct needs, interests and desires to appear normative, avoid stigma and assimilate, Kwon and his team said. Yet, to obtain disability services on campus or accommodations in the workplace, they must disclose their disabilities, thereby increasing the risks of losing their autonomy or coveted job opportunities.

“Despite the persistent effects of ableism on the lack of equal access and opportunities in employment, college students with disabilities are expected to disclose their disabilities at the cost of experiencing stereotype threat … because disability support services on college campuses are predicated on the disclosure of difference,” they wrote.

Stereotype threat occurs when people feel concerned that they will confirm a stereotypical belief about a societal group they belong to when they engage in certain activities, according to the National Institutes of Health’s website.

Adding to these complications, many students do not know how to disclose their disability to obtain services. Others may not realize they have a disability, or their type of disability interferes with their executive functions and ability to make a disclosure, Kwon’s team said.

Another barrier for students is the lack of collaboration among disability services, counseling centers and career services on college campuses. These units often focus on their separate areas of expertise and do not share information that might benefit students, the team said.

They advocate a collaborative approach, in which disability and career services units work together to develop individualized solutions for students, a strategy that research found was effective with undergraduate and graduate students with autism at one university.

Further, to ensure that issues of inclusion, accommodation and career services development are addressed in a coordinated, cross-functional manner, the team recommended that colleges and universities incorporate disability into their diversity programs.

“Explicitly repositioning disability as an equal component of diversity at the strategic level of an institution allows career and other related services for students with disabilities to be sustainably provided,” the team wrote.

To create pathways from college to the workplace, postsecondary institutions need to create partnerships with businesses to connect students with disabilities to job opportunities, they said.

In the brief, the researchers highlighted a university that successfully implemented this type of partnership by leveraging the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Recruitment Program. The program connects federal and private-sector employers nationwide with students and recent graduates with disabilities who have degrees in business or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

These partnerships can assist employers with recruitment by hosting job fairs for students with disabilities and creating deep-learning opportunities that connect job seekers with organizations’ leaders and staff members, the team wrote.

With many U.S. businesses currently struggling to recruit skilled workers to fill job vacancies, the team said these higher education-industry partnerships may be crucial in the years ahead, not only for the well-being of students with disabilities but for the nation’s economy as well.