Cracks in “Talent Pipeline” Pose Risks for Employers and College Students With Disabilities

By: Carol Glazer, President, National Organization on Disability

As the leader of a national organization focused on employment for people with disabilities, I routinely have the privilege of visiting places that are doing some remarkable work to advance the issue. My travels of late took me to two notable college campuses: Edinboro University, just outside of Erie, PA, which has committed to excellence in accommodations for students with disabilities; and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York, which has dedicated itself to helping students with disabilities access jobs upon graduation, better ensuring their long-term economic security.

Frankly, America’s colleges and universities would do well to examine what RIT and other leaders in career services are doing right, because many, if not most, are getting it wrong. Nationally, students with disabilities take twice as long to secure a job after graduation. And of the 1.4 million college students with disabilities, about 60-percent of them can expect to not find a job when they graduate. Talk about a harsh dose of reality for young people who simply want to contribute.

When I talk with employers, which is just about every day, they tell me their inability to hire new graduates with disabilities is not due to a lack of qualified candidates, but rather a lack of access. We at the National Organization on Disability decided to take a closer look at this issue recently, which resulted in a white paper titled, Bridging the Employment Gap for Students with Disabilities.

Our research, along with guidance from partners such as Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities and the National Association of Colleges and Employers, resulted in a series of recommendations that colleges and universities can take right now. Chief among them, and it’s one that RIT is executing quite well, is better coordination and communication between each school’s career services and disability offices, which respectively have access to “disability-friendly” employers and job seekers with disabilities. It may seem simple, yet so few schools get this right. At RIT, students engaged in this new model of information sharing report excellent results, with all early participants obtaining employment.

A closer look at this issue reveals that, while as a nation, we have become increasingly proficient at creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities in entry-level positions, employers have yet to build a robust talent pipeline for professional positions. This is a particularly pressing problem for employers looking for candidates with STEM backgrounds. One would think our institutions of higher education would be the ideal place to fill up that pipeline.

However, most professional-level jobs require not only a college degree, but frequently up to five years of work experience. This is a Catch 22 for the majority of all college-educated jobseekers, not just jobseekers with disabilities. But what we’re learning is that these experience requirements may be overly restrictive and are inadvertently screening out graduates with disabilities that could perform well in professional jobs with the right training.

This was underscored in a new study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in which employers evaluated students in skill areas such as being innovative, solving complex problems and working with others. Employers did not rank college grads highly in those key categories. Yet, talk with a person who has navigated the streets in a wheelchair for ten years or dealt with the medical establishment on a daily basis, and you’ll find a job candidate who excels in all three areas. Employers should reexamine requirements that might be unnecessarily restrictive – particularly federal contractors who must now seek to satisfy new federal disability employment targets – and potentially gain new sources of inventive and resourceful talent.

This summer, our nation will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA. We have taken tremendous strides forward in improving access to employment for people with disabilities. But if we cannot solve the issue of how to connect talented young people with disabilities to meaningful employment, we will have not only wasted an historic opportunity to close this seemingly intractable employment gap, but we will yet again be wasting the talents of people who have much to contribute and deserve the opportunity to participate in the American Dream.

Most Employers Are Overlooking this Source of Talent

People with Disabilities Have Much Needed Skills and Creativity, Yet They Are a Largely Overlooked Talent Source.


Smart companies are always looking for new ways to find and retain talented employees.

Often-overlooked prospects are people with disabilities. Just 19% of people with disabilities participate in the labor force (compared with over 68% of the rest of the population) and their unemployment rate is nearly 11%.

“If you want to have a workforce that thinks outside of the box I think it’s really important to be tapping into a diverse population like the population of workers with disabilities, because they live outside of the box. They’re constantly thinking about better and smarter ways to do things and to get around obstacles,” says Barbara Otto, who heads Chicago, Illinois-based Think Beyond the Label, an organization that promotes hiring of people with disabilities.


Otto says that employees with disabilities also tend to have lower rates of absenteeism and higher overall retention rates than workers without disabilities. And while you can find candidates with disabilities in all of the same places you find other prospective hires, there are also some places you can look and things you can do to find and attract them more directly.


It sounds simple, but you need to include hiring people with disabilities in your diversity initiatives, which is a common oversight, says Joyce Bender, president and CEO of Bender Consulting Services, LLC, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania consulting firm that works with organizations to recruit employees with disabilities. Work with hiring managers to help them seek out qualified candidates. Discuss your goals with your employees and encourage them to recommend qualified people with disabilities from among their networks.


As of January 2015, federal contractors are required to invite job candidates to voluntarily disclose disabilities during the application process via a Department of Labor-created form. The form is meant to increase opportunities for people with disabilities. Since some disabilities can’t be seen, voluntary disclosure can help you understand the needs of employees with various disabilities and better accommodate their needs while cultivating your own company’s diversity, Otto says.


There are many local, state and federal programs and organizations that help people with disabilities find jobs. This list from the Department of Labor includes a number of organizations that specialize in training, connecting and placing young people with disabilities in appropriate jobs. The National Organization on Disability and SourceAmerica also offer help to employers who wish to hire people with disabilities. Each state also has a vocational rehabilitation agency to help people with disabilities. Otto says that Think Beyond the Label has been running online career fairs, which make it more possible for job seekers with disabilities to interact with diversity recruiters.


Depending on the type and size of your business, you may have certain obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act in providing accommodations for employees with disabilities, ranging from technology to help them do their jobs to making your facility more accessible to people with physical disabilities. Bender says that some employers are scared off by the cost, but that’s largely a myth, she says.

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy service, more than half of accommodations cost nothing to make. Of the rest, the typical cost is roughly $500. In addition, you may qualify for tax incentives to make your business more accessible. JAN is a free consulting service that provides accommodations solutions and technical advice on the employment provisions of the ADA.


A 2013 Think Beyond the Label survey found that telecommuting is an important perk for people with disabilities, especially those who might not be able to work in a traditional environment. Others included flexible spending programs, onsite fitness centers and services, and free or subsidized meals.


Otto says that prospective employees look for environments where they feel comfortable. One of the best ways to make your workplace feel more welcoming to employees with disabilities is to talk about your goals to include hiring people with disabilities. Make sure the “careers” section of your web site includes images and language that show you value diversity and inclusion and how you support employees with disabilities, she says.

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