Career Guide for College Students With Disabilities

Finding a career after graduating college can be a daunting prospect for many students, but it can be especially challenging for students with disabilities. These students face challenges associated with a lack of career counseling, discriminatory hiring practices, a fear of disclosing disabilities during the application or interviewing process for a job, and inadequate education regarding disability rights. As a result, recent graduates are approximately 40 percent less likely to find employment after graduation than those without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

However, there are a variety of resources available to students with disabilities, and with guidance, finding the route to a successful career can become much more attainable. Career counselors, work-based learning opportunities, internships, job search workshops, and resources for understanding their individual rights can empower students with disabilities to set off on a start to fulfilling, successful careers. Let’s take a look at each of these resources, explore how they can benefit your journey, and discuss how you can make full use of them:

College graduate shaking hands over a desk

Career Preparation in College

Consult a Career Counselor

If you want to take your professional development seriously, you should consider contacting a career counselor. One of the unfortunate realities for college graduates struggling to find work is that they are often unaware that most campuses have career counselors available to assist with the process while they’re receiving their education. According to an article on U.S. News, most students never contact their campus career center, or participate in any of its events throughout their academic careers.

Career counselors can help students throughout each stage of the job application and interview preparation process. While job applicants have no obligation to discuss their disabilities (and the ADA prohibits interviewers from asking about them), counselors may provide you with strategies for discussing your disability tactfully — so that the interview can be focused around your qualifications.

Work-Based Learning

When it comes to identifying career interests, skills, and goals, there is no better method than participating in a relevant internship program. Not only can such experiences give students with disabilities positive work habits and contacts for future employment, but they can help such learners determine their accommodation needs. In this way, work-based learning can help students with disabilities develop essential self-advocacy skills, helping to ensure themselves access to future career opportunities.

There are a wide range of internships and outside learning programs available to students with disabilities. Some examples include:

  • Job Shadowing: If you’re interested in exploring a profession, job shadowing is an excellent introduction to nearly any position. These short-term opportunities last anywhere from a few months to a single day, and are intended to help students become familiar with the duties, skills required, and accommodations needed to perform daily tasks in a particular role. This can be especially useful to students with disabilities, as it can give them more information about the specifics of the job and available resources.
  • Apprenticeship: A much more structured system of training than job shadowing, an apprenticeship consists of occupational training and academic instruction. It is also typically a more long-term commitment, as apprenticeships often last between two to four years. The student is taught by experts in the field and given progressively difficult tasks, building their skillset to the level required to succeed in the given career.
  • Service Learning: This method combines working toward career goals with community service through non-profit, government, or charitable organizations. Helping your community with important public issues is gratifying and can give learners insight into their career interests and skills. While service learning doesn’t typically confer course credits, it often opens the doors to future internships.

Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities

It’s no secret that participating in extracurricular activities is an excellent way of building meaningful career experience and bolstering your resume. They strengthen interpersonal skills and can provide relevant work experience. Because people with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM fields, extracurricular STEM activities are of particular importance. These activities can take many forms, including seeking out volunteer activities, and becoming involved in academic/professional organizations.

In addition to honing career-related skills and abilities, extracurricular activities can strengthen your resume considerably. When applying for work, you’ll want to highlight how they have helped you develop key professional skills. This can help counter some challenges people with disabilities may face when seeking work; while some employers may unfortunately have biases against individuals with disabilities, extracurricular experience demonstrates your skills, motivation, and commitment to your chosen career path and community.

Exploring Different Career Paths for Students with Disabilities

Unsure what career path best suits you? While no person’s disability defines who they are, certain career paths — and the Bachelor’s degree or major most closely associated with that career — can be more complimentary to specific disabilities. For example, those with hearing loss might be more suited to communicate regularly via email than through face-to-face communication. Those with chronic health conditions may find that they prefer work that offers flexible schedules and work-from-home policies.

Of course, generally, the most economically viable career paths are likely those that are seeing growth. Which are most suited to people with disabilities? Let’s take a look.

Here are some of the top career paths for people with disabilities, according to growth statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and research by career advice expert Tony Lee:

  • Healthcare Careers: Healthcare jobs are seeing explosive growth. Personal care aides, registered nurses, home health aides, medical assistants, nursing assistants — these are among the fastest-growing occupations in the world, with high demand. While the physical requirements of these jobs differ, having the proper licenses, certifications, and computer skills can open many doors in this sector.
  • Communication Careers: A degree in communications is a versatile and useful tool in the modern workplace for those with disabilities. Companies require effective content and social media marketing in order to grow, and people with degrees in communications are perfectly equipped to handle these tasks. These positions often allow remote work and flexible work schedules, which can be a boon to people with specific disabilities.
  • Computer-related Careers: Jobs that require frequent computer use — like computer support specialists, accountants, or statisticians — are especially suited to those with limited mobility. They’ve seen continued growth over the past decade, ranging from 12 to 18 percent. They also typically have high employment rates, making them relatively safe routes as career paths.
  • Human Service Careers: Given the number of federal and state organizations dedicated to providing assistance and resources to people with disabilities when it comes to looking for work, it should be no surprise that human service careers in government agencies are great options for these same individuals. Getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology opens many doors for people looking to work in this field.

Learn and Understand Your Rights When Seeking Employment

The Americans With Disabilities Act

When seeking work, it’s essential to understand your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Signed into law in 1990, the law makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against applicants with disabilities. It also protects employees, requiring equal access to opportunity in workplaces and academic institutions. If you are qualified to perform the work and have a disability, the ADA protects your right to find work, with or without reasonable accommodation.

Disclosing Your Disability

While the ADA dictates that job applicants have no obligation to disclose their disability (and prohibits employers from asking about it), it may be tactful to do so; if your disability may impact job performance or necessitate accommodations, disclosing your disability would help your employer to understand your needs and abilities.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has many suggestions regarding when and how to disclose any disabilities you may have. You are compelled to disclose your disabilities if you require accommodations to fulfill job duties, and employers are only obligated to provide accommodations if you adequately inform them about the related disability.

Depending on your specific needs, and the requirements of the particular job you are applying for, consider when it is most appropriate to disclose. You may choose to do so with your application/cover letter, during the interview, after receiving a job offer, or during your course of employment. Be forthcoming and proactive about the disclosure. Providing your own practical suggestions for job accommodations is a great way of showing your commitment and willingness to meet the requirements of the job.

Only disclose your disability on a need-to-know basis; this minimizes the potential for discrimination to play a factor in your employment.

Empowering Yourself Against Disability Discrimination

Regardless of your attempts to disclose the nature of your disability, discrimination can occur. If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against due to your disabilities, whether during the application process or while on the job, you should contact the nearest office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC office may suggest mediation, and if the complaint isn’t resolved, they may file a claim against the employer for violating ADA regulations.

Job Search, Resume, and Interview Tips

Resources for Job Searching

Where should you begin with your job search? If you’re relying on standbys like Monster and Indeed, you may want to reconsider your search strategy — there are a number of job search websites specifically designed to help individuals with disabilities find employment, such as:

  • abilityJOBS: A site developed by the same minds behind ABILITY Magazine, employers and job seekers can connect on abilityJOBS, an accessible platform for job seekers with disabilities. They also provide tips for disclosing disabilities and learning interviewing techniques.
  • Disability Job Exchange: America’s Job Exchange offers an alternative portal for job seekers with disabilities called Disability Job Exchange. They also have a team of advisors willing to provide resume and career advice.
  • disABLEDperson: Another resource is disABLEDperson. This site is operated by a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose goal is to reduce the disproportionately high employment rate of people with disabilities.

There are also work placement and recruitment services. The key difference between job search sites and job placement sites is that the former helps job seekers find work by matching them with available positions. These are often temp jobs, but such positions often grow into full-time employment offers. Job placement services are a great way of growing one’s professional network and gaining work experience. Some examples are:

  • Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP): Looking for federal sector work? The WRP is designed to connect federal employers with recent college graduates. It is operated by the DOL’s Disability Employment Policy and U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Diversity Management & Equal Opportunity (ODEP). In conjunction with this program, the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) offers online support to people with disabilities and is committed to “helping employers tap the benefits of disability diversity.”
  • Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD): Students can also utilize COSD, an organization that connects students with disabilities with major employers including AT&T, Microsoft, Bank of America, and Texas Instruments, among many others.

Tips for Writing Your Resume

One of the most important (and correspondingly stressful) parts of applying for work is completing a resume. There are some resume-writing basics to keep in mind when writing your resume, including tailoring your resume for each position you apply to; using keywords from the job posting; highlighting your education; and being concise.

However, for individuals with disabilities, certain concerns can complicate the resume-building process. If your disability has caused you to have some gaps in employment, you do not necessarily need to disclose your condition on the resume (see “Disclosing Your Disability” above); simply explain that illness and recovery have caused you to have some periods of unemployment.

If you have many gaps, consider the benefits of a functional resume. While a chronological resume can highlight gaps of unemployment, a functional resume lists your work experience by skill category. This will help you market your skills and knowledge, rather than highlight an inconsistent employment history.

Interview Tips

Confidence is the key to success in any job interview. You need to prove that you have the experience and qualifications necessary to perform the duties for the position you applied for. If you have a disability, you may feel as though the odds are stacked against you — but if your resume warranted an interview, you have a shot at success. The best way to build confidence is to be prepared for your interview.

When it comes to preparing for the interview, research the company or agency in question. Prepare for common interview questions and rehearse your responses with friend or family members willing to help you. If you have a physical disability, determine if there will be accessibility concerns when making it to the interview location.

When preparing for an interview, decide whether or not you want to disclose your disability. While you are not obligated under the ADA to disclose a disability, you may want to opt to do so at this point — especially if your disability is physical in nature. Addressing the disability will allow you and the employer to focus on your qualifications rather than the unexplained disability.

During the interview, practice the art of effective communication: Be attentive, upbeat, and level-headed. If the interviewer expresses ignorance or bias regarding your disability, don’t show anger. Instead, educate them about your abilities and accommodation needs. Demonstrating confidence in your ability goes a long way toward proving you are the right fit for the job.

Helpful Resources for Students with Specific Disabilities

Autism

There is a growing trend in the number of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and workplace discrimination is a serious concern for such people. Social interactions can be challenging, and some jobs may lack the positive reinforcement that some people with ASD benefit from. Because employers often fail to provide accommodations for it — and because many employees with ASD fear disclosing it — many people with this disorder struggle to maintain stable employment.

People with ASD may choose to seek out work that suits their strengths. Because people with ASD tend to be detail oriented, have good memory skills, and are able to intensely focus on the task at hand, they may be well-suited for careers involving troubleshooting, computer programming, accounting, or copy editing. Consider your strengths and determine your career goals accordingly.

Also protected under the ADA, people with ASD are federally protected against discrimination and have access to number of career resources to assist in job-seeking efforts. Autism NOW is a federally funded organization that provides resources for people with ASD looking to apply to work, prepare for interviews, or request accommodations.

Hearing Impairment

Despite representing nearly one in five Americans over the age of 12, people with impaired hearing often face discrimination during the application process or while employed. Not being able to apply for work or maintain a job due to a lack of accommodations isn’t an acceptable outcome; be sure to disclose your disability and get the tools needed to maximize your potential.

Given the nature of this disability, job applicants may want to disclose it in the cover letter of any application; this will prepare interviewers to make accomodations. When suggesting reasonable accommodations during the interview, suggest some common hearing-impairment accommodations, such as communication devices and software, equipment with visual/sensory alerts (for instance, a phone that vibrates instead of beeping), and a sign language interpreter for key company events.

Further advice for job seekers with hearing loss can be found at the Hearing Loss Association of America. If you are a member of the Deaf community and are looking for work, check the job listings provided by the Rochester Institute of Technology on behalf of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities affect the brain’s ability to process information, and every person with a learning disability has unique circumstances. Fortunately, the ADA also protects these individuals. Having one doesn’t have to create challenges when it comes to applying for work.

If you have any learning disabilities, be prepared with a list of practical suggestions for reasonable accommodations that can maximize your potential on the job. Whether you need special equipment to perform your duties or additional instruction/guidance while on the job, there are solutions to maximize your potential.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) lists a wide range of disabilities and corresponding accomodations to consider. The LDA also offers a number of resources for those with learning disabilities looking for work, including guides for academic and career success.

Mental Health Disabilities

Affecting at least one in four people in the world, mental health disorders are extremely common. However, due to the fact that such disabilities are rarely disclosed, people with mental health disorders may struggle to keep steady employment. Individuals with these disabilities represent a wide range of capable individuals with many abilities and strengths.

Choosing whether or not to disclose mental health disabilities is a thorny issue; in order to avoid discrimination, individuals may feel compelled to conceal this information, but employers need to know about your disability in order to provide accommodations. Every person’s circumstances are unique, so it is up to you to determine if you need accommodations in order to fulfill job requirements.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an advocacy group that provides guides, discussion groups, and additional resources to people living with mental health disabilities.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities can, by their nature, be difficult to avoid disclosing. However, by embracing your disability as a strength when applying for jobs, you can demonstrate your motivation and confidence. Go into detail about the challenges you’ve overcome; demonstrate how your disability has enabled you to make a difference.

Depending on the nature of your physical disability, it may be appropriate to disclose your disability before any job interview. When discussing your accommodations, request any assistive technology you may need to make it through the work area safely. There may need to be modifications to ensure that the workplace is wheelchair friendly, though businesses who make such changes are eligible for tax incentives.

Certain physical disabilities may shape your career goals. If it is essential that you work from home, seek out work in areas such as freelance writing, call center work, web development. You may also opt to seek work through the National Telecommuting Institute — a nonprofit with the goal of matching people with physical disabilities with work-from-home work opportunities.

Visual Impairment

Similarly to those with hearing impairment, people with either partial or complete blindness can face challenges due to a lack of accommodations or hiring discrimination. However, there are a number of benefits for employers who choose to hire visually impaired individuals. In addition to improving workplace diversity, doing so confers tax incentives.

Given the nature of this disability, it may behoove you to disclose your disability in your cover letter or at some point before any job interview. Some appropriate accommodations to request include assistive technologies such as braille displays and screen reading software, modified training instruction, guide dogs (even in offices with no-pet policies), and work-from-home options.

Job seekers experiencing visual impairment can explore job listings at the National Industries for the Blind. Additional advice, resources, and job listings can be found at the American Foundation for the Blind.

While people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by unemployment, you do not need to be a part of this statistic. By accessing available resources and preparing for applications, interviews, and requests for accommodations with intention, you can secure a financially and personally satisfying career. If you are a recent graduate with a disability who is looking to expand your available career options, consider pursuing an online Graduate degree or even a online Doctorate degree to deepen your expertise and advance your professional knowledge. Online degrees offer a student with a disability all of the educational benefits of a university, from the comfort of their own home; there’s no need to commute to a campus, or between classes. No matter your disability, you can determine a fruitful path forward as you begin your career.