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Helping Those With Disabilities Navigate Job Transitions

Helping Those With Disabilities Navigate Job Transitions

For a graduate student, the job market is an intimidating space full of uncertainty. Add to that a disability, and the navigation of the professional world becomes even more daunting. From simple validation to the more complex navigation of identifying positions, interviewing and networking, individuals with disabilities face distinct challenges.

That’s why the two of us -- Allison, a doctoral student with a disability, and Brian, a dean of academic and professional development -- have teamed up to write this article. Our goal is to provide helpful advice -- first, to graduate students, from Allison’s point of view, and then to career and professional advisers, from Brian's.

Allison’s Experience

Unfortunately, adults with disabilities, regardless of vocation, often confront a difficult predicament. Means-tested social assistance, which assesses whether an individual or family can survive without said assistance from the government, links important social services to your income. Maintaining such services, which again include health care, creates incentives for you to stay below a certain income threshold -- i.e., the poverty level -- in order to receive important and necessary health and wellness services.

For me, this has fostered a sense of anxiety around the ability to join the job market due to a fear of losing vital benefits, specifically Medicaid, which pays for more than 40 hours of care per week. These services, which support all activities of daily living, are fundamental to my survival, and the possibility for losing them proves extremely disheartening. For some of us graduate students, who have excelled in our education to this point, this issue can be especially concerning.

In this environment of uncertainty and anxiety, the support of career development professionals is invaluable. While it may seem obvious that people with disabilities can and should be able to seek professional opportunities, inherent social structures in the United States often discourage people with disabilities from pursuing successful careers. First and foremost, income limits severely penalize those pursuing advanced-level careers. Individuals become trapped between not working, or at very best finding a job below the poverty level, and making too much money to maintain social benefits, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Simply put, many graduate students with disabilities need every affirmation that they can pursue a professional life despite these challenges. We need to believe that it is not an intractable situation and at the very least, we have the prerogative to explore and pursue options. This is the first step to career planning that can begin to navigate the complex world of work and disability.

Further, once a person with a disability decides to go on the job market, many other questions arise. The most basic is the simple disclosure of a disability in the application process. From my experience, this has been a major concern and has raised such questions as, does disclosure violate my privacy as a professional? Would my disability be seen as a hindrance to my potential employer? Would the inclusion of my disability status be seen as a way to gain special treatment in the application and selection process?

Here, career planning professionals can be especially helpful to graduate students with disabilities. They can serve as a useful and supportive sounding board for students to voice concerns and anxieties, as well as a resource to learn from. Students with disabilities can also practice pitching their distinct perspectives and experiences as valuable to employers, both in the application and interviewing process, to such career planning experts.

It is also important to consider the role of disclosure or self-identification before and during job interviews. Applicants should be aware that during job interviews, an employer may not ask interviewees if they have a disability. However, an employer is allowed to ask an applicant whether they can perform the job and how they would perform the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Additionally, the professional culture within the United States encourages mannerisms and appearances that are not always inclusive and achievable by all. That can be quite alienating for graduate students, as we can worry that our success may hinge on our ability to shake a hand, make eye contact or wear certain clothes. Career professionals can make an important intervention here by brainstorming with students with disabilities and helping them negotiate their potential challenges in this arena.

Similar feelings and solutions are also raised around networking. To my knowledge, there is no proper etiquette for people with disabilities, broadly conceived, to navigate in-person networking situations. Career professionals, partnered with the diverse disability community, could be pioneers in providing more guidance in this area.

Brian’s Recommendations for Career and Professional Development Experts

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars serve as a pool of future employees to fill the demand for talented, highly skilled advanced degree-holding professionals to lead innovation across different industries and employment sectors. Recently, I began teaching a professional development course for graduate students, Building Your Professional Brand. Similar to courses offered at other institutions, it provides early-career professionals (graduate students, in this case) with a soup-to-nuts structure of the career development process: engaging in self-assessments; creating effective job application materials; searching for and identifying opportunities; researching industries, organizations and future employers (including the ethical orientations of these organizations); creating a LinkedIn profile; engaging in informational interviews; and developing networking and interviewing skills culminating into an individual development plan.

The students enrolled in the course are diverse: master’s and doctoral students from a range of disciplines, domestic and international students, students who just started their academic program and those who are about to graduate. Many students are new to graduate education, and some are professionals returning to earn additional credentials and advanced degrees. This diversity provides rich examples of experience, insightful questions and opportunities to share advice about career transitions.

That’s when I met Allison. I’d worked with other people with disabilities but never a student who was at the stage of career transition. I had never thought about how the job-search process might be different from her perspective. How could I best support Allison with her search?

As career and professional development professionals in higher education, it’s important to acknowledge areas of our own continued learning to better support the diversity of the students with whom we work. This call to action for organizations to do more for employees with disabilities, among others, highlights the need for including this population as a key source of talent.

With this perspective, both Allison and I offer some specific actions and resources that career and professional development professionals can employ to better support and provide guidance to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with disabilities.

Learn the language. It can be challenging to get it right when talking about diversity and to avoid possible offensive references. Words matter, so everyone should start with language. Learning and integrating appropriate words and phrases when speaking to and about students with disabilities acknowledges the person first.

Refer students to campus resources. University career centers are the primary resource for any students seeking employment. In addition, ancillary offices, such as dean of students and accessibility services, can collaborate to more effectively support students with disabilities in their job search process. Direct students to these campus units first to help address their current needs and support for transition after graduation.

Support students during their job search. Encourage students to search online common job-search engines. Also advise them to research organizations/companies of interest. Some resources include Vault, Glassdoor, Handshake and LinkedIn, as well as organizations’/companies’ individual websites.

Some other recommendations:

  • Help students check out employers’ Equal Opportunity Employer policies, accessibility services, human resources sites, diversity and values statements. Are there examples of how the organization enacts such policies?
  • Help students search for examples of employers’ inclusive practices. How has the organization demonstrated inclusive practices? What messages come from leadership about inclusivity? What assistance do organizations provide for employee onboarding?
  • Encourage students to formulate and ask questions throughout the job search process. As a low-stakes approach, students can ask questions during informational interviews to gain insights about available support, organizational culture and an insider perspective about an organization’s true commitment to and value of diverse employees. Some examples: “What types of accommodations does your employer provide?” “How does leadership model practices of inclusion and enact them?”

We hope this piece provides both graduate students and career development professionals insight into common challenges that students with disabilities confront, ways to address those challenges, helpful resources and how people can develop a mind-set to be successful during the transition from a student/trainee who has a disability to someone who has successfully entered the realm of professional work.