Building Support Systems for Students with Disabilities

At a time when educational expectations for securing employment are increasing and the unemployment rate is decreasing, one sector of the population is not experiencing equal progress in this area.

In 2014, the employment rate for persons with disabilities was 17.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while students with disabilities are attending college at an increasing rate, not all of them are graduating with the skills necessary to land their first job, let alone launch a successful career.

[Above: Devon Adelman, a current student in the ACHIEVE certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities at Highline College]

“The largest minority group unemployed in the United States is Americans with disabilities,” says Joyce Bender, owner and founder of the disability recruiting firm Bender Consulting. “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is 25 years old, but one needle that has not moved is employment.”

As colleges and universities, and their student disability services offices, continue to provide only what is required of them by law — classroom accommodations — students with disabilities don’t see the same return on their investment as their non-disabled peers.

The ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — designed to protect people with disabilities in both the classroom and the workplace.— have done much for the disability community over the last two and a half decades. However, some experts believe colleges and universities aren’t providing enough support for these students who desperately need it.

“I am very outspoken about the fact that student disability services offices have become college and university compliance offices around the implementation of the ADA and Section 504. That’s not what they were originally designed to be, and because of staffing issues, when they wind up being nothing more than the university’s compliance office, the other supports and services that students with disabilities need are not being met,” says Curtis Richards, director of the Center for Workforce Development (CWD) at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). “I’m not saying this is true across the board, but.… I think this is a huge issue in higher education that needs to be addressed.”

Within the CWD is the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Youth), which exists to address this issue and promote success for youth with disabilities entering the workforce.

According to data from CWD, only one-third of young people with disabilities who need job training actually receive it. With the goal of overcoming this inequity, NCWD/Youth assists state and local workforce development systems to better serve these young people and make sure they are provided with high-quality services to obtain education and employment.

Richards says that NCWD/Youth encourages institutions to take a more “holistic” approach to addressing what students with disabilities need to be successful.

“There’s a lot of individual planning and assessing going on on campuses,” he says, “but … it isn’t necessarily as holistic as we believe it needs to be in order to have a young person make a successful transition from high school to college to work.”

Through a set of “Guideposts for Success,” the organization examines a range of areas that need to be addressed: schooling and education, workforce preparation, youth development and leadership, and family life. NCWD/Youth is putting these guideposts into action via its Pathways to Careers: Community Colleges for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities Demonstration Project, launched in fall 2015.

Community College in Syracuse, N.Y., and Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn. As recipients of the grant money, these institutions are working to research, develop, test, and evaluate strategies for “providing inclusive education and career development services” to students with disabilities.

“In working with these two community colleges, we’re trying to … not just look at the academic side of what goes on, but also the career preparation that has to happen — the connectedness to other supports and services, like health and mental health services and transportation issues; how to get families engaged doing things in the youth development arena, like peer-to-peer support; and helping them through both academic and workforce-related issues.”

An Extra Layer of Support
Across the country, in Des Moines, Wash., Highline College is taking an individualized, hands-on approach to guiding students with intellectual disabilities along the path from higher education to the workforce.

The college’s ACHIEVE certificate program is focused on identifying students’ strengths, goals, and abilities in order to help them choose a career path. Each student is paired with an academic adviser and an employment consultant who assist with this process. Once students have selected a career path, their adviser helps them identify and choose courses that will give them the knowledge and skills necessary to reach their employment goals.

“The academic adviser and the student work together to develop an individual program of study, … so each person’s classes could look different,” says Julie Jine, associate director of the program.

Julie Jine, associate director of the ACHIEVE program at Highline College
Julie Jine, associate director of the ACHIEVE program at Highline College

Students enroll in some program-specific courses — which focus on self-advocacy, communication and interview skills, workplace readiness, and community engagement — as well as classes in the field they wish to go into. Employment consultants also help place students in community-based internships to give them real-work experience.

Furthermore, ACHIEVE students are encouraged to stay active and socialize with their peers outside of class, such as by joining a club.

With a focus on academics, as well as the social and professional aspects of a college education, Highline aims to graduate students who excel both inside and outside the classroom — and beyond campus.

“In order to graduate from ACHIEVE, we focus on three core competency areas — classroom, campus, and career — because each of our students comes to us with a different career goal,” Jine says. “We hope that our students exit with that certificate, with proof of their learning and growth in each of those competency areas, their first paid job, and a path to lifelong learning and career.”

The two-year, full-time program, made possible through several grants, currently accepts between 30 and 40 students per year, many of whom are dually enrolled in a special education program in a local K-12 school district. Jine believes ACHIEVE opens the door to higher education and career preparation at a critical time for these students, providing an “extra layer of support” beyond classroom accommodations.

Austin Landon, a graduate of the ACHIEVE program, says he feels “blessed” to have had the opportunity to participate.

“I joined ACHIEVE because I wanted to have a good career in my life and be successful, not just sit at home doing nothing,” says Landon, who works at Target and has dreams of working with kids and music. “I wanted to actually be somebody.”

Success Built on Confidence
At the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Paul Hippolitus is working to reframe the experience of students with disabilities.

Having worked for 30 years in the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the Department of Labor, he spent much of his time traveling the country interviewing thousands of students with disabilities on college campuses. The thing that stood out to him the most during those meetings was students’ utter lack of confidence.

“They don’t come across as this high-powered, self-confident job applicant that [recruiters] look for when [they] come to colleges; that’s how you evaluate talent,” says Hippolitus, who is director of the Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley. “You’re not going to be impressed, and that is why they are overlooked, because they’re not presenting like other applicants in college are presenting.”

“They’re burdened by this lifelong experience called disability. They have not been nurtured around thoughts and ideas about their employment potential,” he adds. “It’s not a deficit in talent; it’s a deficit in ability to represent that talent.”

Inspired by this fact, Hippolitus developed a class at UC Berkeley focused on equipping these students with the soft skills needed to make it in a competitive, fast-paced workforce. The “Professional Development and Disability” course, now in its fifth year, is designed to help students with disabilities transition from college to careers.

Specifically, the semester-long course teaches students how to “identify their individual career options, improve their career preparation and exploration strategies, advance their understanding about the realities of the world of work, and improve their focus and self-confidence regarding their employment potential.” Other topics covered include disability-related employment history, legal requirements, and employment policies and best practices.

“Once we get their heads rewired about their employment potential, we talk to them about the world of work, and we teach them what the values and rules are, what the culture and techniques are, so they can understand that when they go into a job interview, the value isn’t just on answering the interviewer’s questions,” Hippolitus says. “… They’ve got the skills, knowledge, and expertise; they just don’t have the method and the self-confidence to explain it in the traditional [way] in an interview.”

Although the course is not required, Hippolitus believes every UC Berkeley student with a disability would find it invaluable. To measure just how much of an impact it is having, the university surveyed students both before and after taking the course.

Prior to taking the course, only 17.2 percent of students said they strongly believed their disability would be an asset in their careers versus 67.4 percent after completing the course. In addition, after taking the course, 63.7 percent of students strongly agreed that they were “confident” an employer would want to hire them — an increase of 53.3 percent.

For Hippolitus, the numbers are an affirmation that UC Berkeley is serving its students well.

“We do it because we recognize that the mandated services aren’t the full range of needs that our students represent, and if that is all we give, we wouldn’t have the retention and graduation rates that we want to have,” he says.

Raising the Bar
With a focus on placing students in jobs in their desired fields, Highline’s ACHIEVE program is also seeing positive results. According to Jine, 93 to 97 percent of students who enter the program complete it, and each year, around 75 percent of ACHIEVE graduates secure employment — including positions at Microsoft Corporation, Apple Inc., Walgreens, and REI.

Landon, who graduated from ACHIEVE in 2015, has remained at Highline to serve as a peer navigator for the program, helping other students like himself transition from high school to college to a career.

“I learned a lot of job skills, job training skills, that I can use for the work environment, that I can hand down to others who are in the program.— the new students coming in and the future students who come in — to make it a better program for them,” he says.

Jine says that people with disabilities are often plagued by low expectations — both internal and external; however, she says that by elevating their expectations, Highline has seen these students excel. “The higher we’ve raised the bar, our students have met it,” she says.

Part of the reason for this may be the supportive and forgiving atmosphere Highline fosters for these and all of its students.

“There is an opportunity here to have freedom, as well as freedom to fall with some help getting picked back up,” Jine says. “Often, people with intellectual disabilities are too protected, aren’t given the opportunity to fail and try again. … I think we really support those opportunities to find out who you are and the belief that you can achieve what you want to.”

An accommodating environment, coupled with cross-campus collaboration, may be the key to providing the necessary support system for students with disabilities. Richards and Hippolitus concur that to move beyond a linear way of thinking about disability, all efforts need to involve not just the disabled student services office, but also the on-campus health and career centers, among other offices and departments.

“It’s very easy for universities … to say, ‘Let disabled student services do it because that’s what their job is,’” says Hippolitus. “But we need to look at an evolution, a progression, where our program doesn’t get bigger and bigger, but it gets smarter and smarter, and it gets other elements at the university learning how to accept [some of] the responsibility.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of  INSIGHT Into Diversity.