photo of a disabled person with light brown skin and curly short hair sitting in wheelchair and looking at camera while using laptop computer

With the academic year in full swing, this is when those headed for graduation are usually thinking, what is next for me? I remember those moments—for both undergrad and grad school—but as a graduating disabled student, answering this question was especially complex.  

I knew my path to employment after graduation would likely go differently than my able-bodied peers. As a wheelchair user, I know that there are certain jobs and industries that may not be as accommodating to my needs as they can or should be, whether legally or in the requirements of the job. Understanding this fact alone created an additional stressor in navigating the great unknown after graduation.  

My experience is not an isolated case—I have found disabled professionals who had similar worries about whether an employer would be accommodating and accepting of disabled workers and ensure that we had the tools and support needed to thrive in our roles and achieve our career goals. I feared encountering people who would never consider disabled people viable candidates worth hiring. 

Though disabled students approaching their graduations have some awareness of how the job market (de)values disabled workers, many will still likely experience the full extent of this rude awakening before they walk or roll across the stage to receive their degree because, much of the time, career services on campus are ill-equipped to provide disabled students with the preparation and tools they need to navigate an inaccessible and ableist workforce.

In my written testimony provided in May to the House Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee On Diversity and Inclusion, I shared research that illustrates the dire reality of employment and disability in this country:  

“When considering the employment-population ratio among disabled and non-disabled workforce demographics, the gap between disabled and non-disabled workers is profound. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, the employment-population ratio for disabled people was 19.1%; a stark contrast when compared to their non-disabled peers at 63.7%. These numbers did shift slightly in 2020 and 2019 for disabled people, with the ratio being 17.9% and 19.3%, respectively. (In the same timeframe of 2020 and 2019, the ratios for non-disabled people were 61.8% and 66.3%, respectively.)

“More than half of working-age disabled people in this country are not a part of the labor force; an astounding number for a country that encourages work the moment a person is legally able to do it.”

These incredibly upsetting numbers mean that colleges and universities are doing a grave disservice to disabled students by failing to adequately prepare them for the challenges they’ll face in the workforce as they apply for jobs and other prospects. It’s critical for career services in higher education institutions to grapple with the realities disabled people face once we leave student life and integrate those concerns into the resources, advice, and support career services are supposed to provide for students. 

We deserve to not only know of barriers that keep us underemployed and unemployed; we also need to be connected with ideas and resources that may allow us to think more strategically about where we want to go. Our employment paths may have more twists and turns than those of our non-disabled peers, but we still must be equipped to find employment in our chosen fields or consider non-traditional options that may better suit our talents and expertise.  

I wish that career services had aided me with more awareness about the challenges I would face instead of just assisting me with resumé writing and providing direction on finding jobs online. I wish I had been told how navigating the employment landscape would differ for a disabled hire like myself and been given a map drawn for people like me. Having such insight would have made me less angry about not finding jobs as quickly as my non-disabled peers and more aware of other avenues to consider, like taking a gap year before going to grad school or getting creative with how I could use my degree with available technology. I had to figure these things out on my own, but even a bit more knowledge might have meant I would have made those connections sooner, saving me time, money, energy, and headspace.  

Since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen institutions dragged into the 21st century by finally implementing options like remote/virtual learning to make higher education more accessible, something disabled students have been advocating for years. It’s notable that this happened primarily because those institutions faced catastrophic financial loss if physical attendance was the only option for paying students. Their resistance to remote learning wasn’t because it was a nonviable option, but because when they thought only disabled students would need or use remote access, it was an inconvenience.

Similar attitudes have hindered disabled students’ ability to think broadly about their potential career paths. Remote work or creating an online portfolio are viable pathways for some disabled students because online access sheds in-person or in-office barriers that impede the kind of work they do, but disabled students won’t be able to consider those options if they aren’t informed they’re available in the first place.  

The pandemic forced open a door that institutions of higher education had refused to acknowledge until they had no choice, enabling disabled students to access more possibilities, both in terms of a wider array of work options and the ability to connect more effectively. Career services now have a window of opportunity to reconsider and restructure how they can best support students preparing to enter a technologically-savvy, pandemic-changed landscape and how they can ensure disabled students will be competitively sought after and hired or able to expand their postgraduate learning opportunities. When students have a view of what the world has to offer that isn’t limited by “traditional” pipelines to employment and academia, how they view their potential, talents, and gifts can expand to encompass options and possibilities they may have felt was beyond their reach.  

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...