Over the last decade, the enrollment of students with disabilities in postsecondary education has increased dramatically. In 1978, just 3 percent of all incoming, first-time, full-time college freshmen reported having a disability. By 2000, a full 9 percent of incoming full-time freshmen reported having at least one disability. According to the 1995 to 1996 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the average age of all students with disabilities attending college was higher than that of their non-disabled peers (30 years versus 26 years); those with disabilities were less likely to be enrolled in public four-year colleges and universities (25 percent versus 32 percent); and students with disabilities were more likely to attend public two-year institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics found that students with disabilities were about as likely as students without disabilities to attend private, not-for-profit, four-year institutions (14 percent and 15 percent, respectively).
Many postsecondary disability service providers believe that the 9 percent enrollment figure is an underestimate, as it includes only incoming freshmen of traditional age (18-22) and does not take into consideration older college students with disabilities, those who attend part-time, those who transfer to four-year institutions from community colleges, or those who discontinue their studies and later resume postsecondary education. Higher college enrollments among students with disabilities can be attributed to increased knowledge and advocacy while students are still in high school, teaching and classroom modifications in secondary education, and advances in adaptive technology, in addition to increased mainstreaming of students with disabilities in K-12 public education.
Despite this increase in enrollment, college students with disabilities persist to graduation in fewer numbers than their non-disabled peers and tend to secure employment in lower numbers. Beyond the routine issues of adjustment to the postsecondary setting, career assessment, and job-search skill development important for all college students, there exists a stigma attached to the disclosure of disabilities. Students still encounter stereotypes and bias when they enter college classrooms, and many students have not yet learned strong self-advocacy skills or developed a basic self-awareness of their own disabilities as well as what accommodations they may need. Despite legislation, students with disabilities still find many college science labs, clinical settings, and engineering facilities inaccessible, thus preventing access to and opportunities for training in higher-paying science, engineering, or other technology-based career fields. In addition, employers as well as internship and cooperative education supervisors remain relatively uneducated about the needs of people with disabilities in the workplace, as well as their legal responsibilities for accommodating applicants and employees with disabilities.
Legislation Involving Individuals with Disabilities
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 remains the legal cornerstone of the college student disability accommodation process. Programs receiving federal financial assistance are not allowed to discriminate against people with disabilities. In particular, postsecondary institutions are required to make academic adjustments, modify nonessential academic requirements, and provide auxiliary aids and services to students with disabilities. Examples include priority registration, reduced course load, note takers, sign language interpreters, extended time on testing, alternative formats for printed material, and access to computer software and adaptive technology. Section 508 (Accessibility of Technology) of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act focuses specifically on expanding the access of software, equipment, and other technology for people with disabilities. Section 508 requires federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was later enacted to expand the 1973 legislation and earlier Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. In particular, Title I of The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in the job application process, hiring, training, advancement, and other aspects of employment.
In public school settings, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and its subsequent reauthorization of 1997 focus on K-12 education. This legislation added mandatory transition of students at age 14, to move students from being merely present in individual education planning (IEP) meetings to being active participants in planning for their needs after high school, in both college and employment settings.
Although these laws have increased protections from discrimination, attitudes and responsiveness to students’ needs cannot be legislated. Thus, early career-planning activities for young people with disabilities provide the foundation for educating students regarding their rights and for students’ requesting and using accommodations before entering the workforce. It is critical for career services professionals to develop their own awareness of disability needs as they assist students in taking advantage of part-time and summer employment, on-campus recruitment, externships, internships, and cooperative work experiences prior to college graduation. Career service professionals can also serve students by educating employers who recruit students with and without disabilities, so as to prevent biases and personal stereotypes from adversely impacting their employment practices.
Improvements in the Experiences of Students with Disabilities
As a result of legislation and improved transition from high school to college, students are becoming more knowledgeable about their rights and are more inclined to assert those rights to obtain their accommodations. In 2001, as a result of a physically disabled student’s complaint, Duke University entered into an agreement with the Department of Justice to make its campus more accessible to students with disabilities. This landmark case was the first to deal with accessibility improvements on a wide-ranging basis (i.e., modifications of policies, practices, procedures; provision of auxiliary aids and services; and improvements to the accessibility of facilities). Duke went further than the legal requirements and developed a comprehensive campus disability management system, a model for many other universities across the country.
In another milestone for students with disabilities, the College Board has recently agreed to stop identifying students who take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) under nonstandard conditions. Colleges frequently (and erroneously) perceived such scores as having decreased value in students’ applications, assuming that students who took the exam under nonstandard conditions were less likely to succeed in college. The original plaintiff had a physical disability (no hands) and used a computer and trackball to complete the test.
Another substantial improvement in students’ experiences in college has been increased faculty awareness over the past five years. Under the Clinton administration, the National Science Foundation’s Program for Persons with Disabilities funded over 20 demonstration grants to improve postsecondary education for students with disabilities by promoting accessible pedagogy, inclusive instructional materials, media, and educational technologies. “Universal design” for learning and instruction is a revolutionary concept in the field of disability services in higher education that focuses both on the diverse needs of learners and on ways of creating an accessible teaching environment on college campuses.
Distance education has exploded in the past decade, and adaptive hardware, accessible technologies, and inclusive teaching methods are critical if students with disabilities are to enroll in online courses. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act also requires accessibility of instructional software, and more universities are stipulating that their faculties learn about access issues prior to teaching online courses. Information technology (IT) professionals are likely to be more aware of inadvertent barriers to students with sensory disabilities caused by college, departmental, and course Web pages, as well as courseware such as WebCT. Adaptive technology and software are increasingly available at institutions so that students no longer have to bear the huge costs of purchasing their own technology. Universities are now able to obtain software that allows students with visual disabilities to understand maps and graphs via tactile format. More colleges are moving to document conversion, where books in print are converted to audio or digital formats (e.g., eText), and some publishers provide printed materials in alternative formats. Medical professions use instruments such as auditory blood pressure machines and talking thermometers. Innovative equipment and technology are being created and improved each year to remove barriers students face in college and the workplace.
Barriers in the Workplace
Despite many gains within the postsecondary environment, there continues to be a lack of understanding and awareness of disability issues among employers, human resource managers, and postsecondary career planning professionals. Stereotypes against employees with disabilities are still common. Employers are confused about the perceived correlation between ADA provisions and Family Medical Leave Act requirements.
Adults with disabilities continue to report barriers to employment, according to the Urban Institute of Washington, D.C. In a survey of 16,000 people with disabilities, respondents identified several workplace limitations that impacted their abilities to obtain and sustain employment. Respondents noted that barriers to obtaining employment included (a) lack of accessible transportation, (b) lack of appropriate information about jobs, and (c) inadequate training. The highest barriers within the workplace were listed as (a) lack of related experience, (b) lack of required skills, (c) supervisors’ lack of knowledge about accommodations, and (d) negative attitudes and stereotypes. Finally, effective strategies needed to reduce employment barriers included (a) visible top-management commitment, (b) staff training, (c) technical assistance, and (d) special budgets for auxiliary aids.
Implications for Postsecondary Faculty and Staff
Essentially, there are four modes of access that will increase the participation of students with disabilities in both college and employment: physical access, programmatic access, informational access, and attitudinal access. Provision of entrance ramps, wider doors, accessible bathrooms, braille elevator buttons, and accessible parking spaces allow for the first and most fundamental physical access to buildings, classrooms, offices, and employment facilities. Second, disabled people receive programmatic access when they obtain alternative formats of printed material and service animals to get to class or work. Informational access includes auxiliary aids and services (e.g., readers, interpreters), videos and films with closed or open captions, and TTY phones for deaf or hearing-impaired individuals.
Finally, the greatest difficulties faced by people with disabilities are perhaps related to attitudinal access. Although legislation easily mandates physical accessibility and provides legislative guidance on the technical specifications of accessibility as well as guidance on how to improve access to career programs, services, and information, the law cannot legislate attitudes. Faculty and staff need to carefully consider whether they may be more inclined to discourage students with disabilities from certain careers than students without disabilities; it is illegal to counsel a student out of a career field based merely on the presence of a disability. It is important that faculty and staff recognize their own biases and stereotypes and how these assumptions influence their behavior toward students with disabilities. Career professionals may be invaluable in helping students to accurately assess their strengths as well as weaknesses, the onset and nature of their disabilities, and what (if anything) they may need as accommodations that will equalize their chances to compete for employment.
There are several ways college/university professionals may address outdated attitudes about people with disabilities:
- Take initiative in educating career services staff about the experiences of people with disabilities
- Attend campus workshops, listen to speakers, and consult with career professionals at other universities to learn more about different types of disabilities, employment issues for this population, and how staff can become allies of students
- Consult with colleagues in the university office of disability services to learn more about the needs of students
- Invite employers who utilize on-campus recruiting program to attend meetings with disability services staff to enhance their knowledge regarding disability issues
- Provide training for employers (e.g., live and frequently asked questions) regarding how to interact with and hire people with disabilities
To further eliminate bias and stereotypes about people with disabilities, career professionals can provide accurate information to employers about the accomplishments of people with disabilities in different employment settings. For example, there is an increase in qualified students with disabilities who are enrolling and experiencing academic success in health care fields such as nursing and medicine. Unfortunately, many career professionals, medical school faculty, and employers may erroneously believe these professions are not realistic goals for students who have disabilities. Many advances in technology have led to the development of medical equipment that is more accessible to professionals (e.g., talking thermometers, adaptive blood pressure cuffs), thereby allowing qualified people with disabilities the opportunity to train and become employed in health care.
Needs of Students with Disabilities in the Career-Planning Process
Students with disabilities struggle with decisions regarding disclosure. Often they are caught between competing desires to be fully independent and to request accommodations that will facilitate their academic and/or job performance. When they meet with disability services professionals, they most likely are not seeking assistance for the job-search process. They are more likely to focus on achieving success in the classroom.
When students with disabilities do come into career services, they are not skilled in asking for specialized assistance regarding one or more disabilities. They may not know whom to ask for help regarding their disabilities and their implications for their career development. For this reason, career professionals must strive to establish a climate of support that will invite students to seek assistance. For example, adding disability-related events to a Web-based office calendar conveys to students with disabilities that the office is aware of their needs. Similarly, the availability of disability-related material in print and via the office Web page gives much-needed information to a population of students frequently invisible to many campus personnel.
Internships, practica, clinical rotations, and co-ops are opportunities for students with disabilities to establish positive and successful work histories, whether or not they use the accommodations. The more students with disabilities experience positive job searches while in college, the more they will feel at ease when they enter the workforce. While still in college, people with disabilities are likely to benefit from practice conveying their skills, strengths, and aspirations, in addition to discussing their disabilities and requesting workplace accommodations as appropriate.
Career service professionals, on behalf of the students with whom they work, can be instrumental in training employers who come to campus regarding their responsibilities to students under the ADA. In some cases, this means creating partnerships and agreements, for example, regarding who pays for accommodations for a student at an internship or co-op worksite. While the ADA Title I identifies employers as being responsible for the costs of accommodating applicants and employees, sharing costs among the college, the co-op site, and possibly vocational rehabilitation will not only defray the costs of accommodating a student employee but also perhaps reduce the use of stereotypes. Career services professionals optimally will work closely with the campus disability services in coordinating the most effective accommodation(s) for an internship, practicum, or job site. The office of disability services often has the expertise and professional contacts to locate appropriate equipment, hardware, or software the student needs.
There are instances in which careers have essential job duties and/or training requirements that cannot be accommodated. For example, math is typically a necessary requirement for computer science programs and in many cases cannot be substituted or waived for a student with a disability involving mathematics. Similarly, foreign-language skills may be critical to some professions (e.g., translators), and substitutions to meet graduation requirements are not reasonable. Rather than counseling students out of a career field, it is imperative to help them assess their skills and needs in light of the essential nature of the field.
Career offices can actively partner with alumni, employment recruitment offices, study-abroad offices, and disability services to make programs they sponsor as accessible as possible to all students. Such coordination allows for planning ahead and prioritizing efforts before a disability is disclosed and accommodation request arises.
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- College Board. 2002. “The College Board and Disabilities Rights Advocates Announce Agreement to Drop Flagging from Standardized Tests.” New York: Author.
- Fichten, C. S. 1988. “Students with Physical Disabilities in Higher Education: Attitudes and Beliefs that Affect Integration.” Pp. 171-186 in Attitudes Toward Persons with Disabilities, edited by H. E. Yuker. New York: Springer.
- Henderson, C. 2001. College Freshmen with Disabilities: A Biennial Statistical Profile. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
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- National Science Foundation (NSF). 2000. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000. Arlington, VA: Author.
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- S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2000. Postsecondary Students with Disabilities: Enrollment, Services, and Persistence. Stats in Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- S. Department of Justice. 2000. “Enforcing the ADA: A Status Report from the Department of Justice.” Washington, DC: Author.
- S. Department of Labor. 2001. Office of Disability Employment Policy. Washington, DC: Author.