The number of college graduates with disabilities is on the rise, as is the number of diversity-conscious companies looking to hire them. Yet, of the 1.4 million people with disabilities who have college degrees, only about 40% report to be working. Many are living below the poverty line.
The poor job placement of students with disabilities is not only a social justice failure, it is a lost opportunity to address the talent needs of today's employers. It also begs the question: why aren't colleges and universities doing more to prepare all of our students for careers?
The research Institute SRI International reported that the number of students with disabilities attending college is rising, citing that in 2010, 46% of young adults with disabilities were attending a college or university within four years of leaving high school, compared with 26% in 1990. Much of this is attributed to accommodations within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), strengthened by the Obama administration, that better support individuals with disabilities throughout their academic trajectory.
Additionally, in 2014, the Obama administration enacted new rules for Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (RA), requiring employers receiving government contracts to set a 7% disabilities goal across all positions, not just those requiring low skills and limited education. The new ruling means that employers can no longer satisfy diversity criteria by hiring people with disabilities for the loading dock or mail room. They need college graduates.
The educational gains made through accommodations combined with government-imposed hiring incentives would appear to be a public policy home-run for graduates with disabilities yet the employment numbers aren't moving despite the high supply/high demand scenario.
For more than thirty years, the National Organization on Disability (NOD) has been striving to increase job opportunities and economic self-sufficiency for the 29 million working aged Americans with disabilities. Much of our work involves connecting employers seeking to expand their diversity initiatives with work-ready candidates. For employers hoping to hire graduates with disabilities, this has been particularly challenging.
Traditional job fairs aren't producing the number of candidates with disabilities needed to fill positions; meanwhile, the likely source for such candidates - college recruiting offices - have, thus far, not risen to the challenge. In fact, the disconnect between those who support students with disabilities on campus and those who counsel and support career-seeking students of all abilities is a major obstacle.
A new partnership between NOD and Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD) has been working on addressing the problem, starting with exploring what's happening - or not happening within college recruitment offices. In our 2014 report "Bridging the Employment Gap for Students with Disabilities" we found that at many schools, the career services office -- which assists students in preparing for and gaining employment --lacked a connection to the office of disabled student services, which exists for a different purpose - to ensure proper accessibility and accommodations while students with disabilities are on campus.
This disconnect leaves a gap, both for employers seeking to diversify their work force and for students with disabilities who are not gaining access to the same services and opportunities as their peers without disabilities.
NOD and COSD are working with colleges and universities to close this gap by helping them implement recommendations such as the appointment of a liaison among offices dedicated to coordinating and sharing resources. Our annual conference, held this week in Boston, brings together employers, administrators and students for employment opportunities as well as strategy sessions on how to increase the students with disabilities' pipeline.
While progress is being made in this area, we are also working on some of the less practical, more philosophical, barriers to employment such as confidentiality, stigma and bias. Historically, students with disabilities looking for jobs were encouraged to hide their disabilities from their potential employers, particularly those with "invisible" disabilities. In 2008, the ADA Amendment Act expanded protection for people with all kinds of disabilities, including dyslexia, anxiety disorders, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. Stigma surrounding mental health disabilities continues to dissuade many students with these disabilities from disclosing them.
The consequences of not reporting are many and include the fact that students with disabilities are not getting the career support they and their peers without disabilities need to gain employment such as internship opportunities, and resume and interviewing support. This also keeps colleges and universities from gathering the information that would allow them to measure students' progress over time and implement data bases that can be used by employers. Without this information, students with disabilities are invisible job candidates.
Finally, to fully address the employment gap for students with disabilities, we must all put aside the biases that lead to the tyranny of low expectations. Colleges and universities should presume that all of their students will seek and gain employment, including those with disabilities. Too often, we congratulate these students for having made it to college and expect little of them going forward. Doing so is a disservice to all of us.
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