Critical disability theory asserts that persons with disabilities ought to have equal access to all aspects of social life and key sites of power, including education and employment. Although provincial and federal laws have resulted in increased numbers of persons with disabilities attending university, many of these students will not obtain the jobs they desire upon graduation, nor feel truly accepted and included within the workforce. This exclusion limits their ability to fully participate in society and adds to the perceived 'burden' of disability. This study, which involves interviews with 10 university graduates with disabilities as they made the transition from university to employment, examines: (a) their search for meaningful employment, (b) their experience of discrimination, (c) their concerns about disclosing a disability, and (d) how the transition influenced the construction of their identity. Findings suggest that the state of the employment market does not meet the tenets of the critical disability movement.
The disability rights movement, enhanced by the work of critical disability theorists, asserts that persons with disabilities ought to have equal access to all aspects of social life and key sites of power, including education and employment (Oliver & Barnes, 1993; Rioux, 2002; 2003). In an effort to achieve this goal, provincial and federal governments in Canada have established incentives and laws that compel both universities and employers to be accessible for persons with disabilities, including Employment Equity policies, human rights laws, and more recent advances to Ontario's disability policies (Bynner & Parsons, 2002; Duquette, 2000; Government of Canada, 1999, Heckhausen, 2002; Ontario Government, 2001; 2005; 2012). The Ontario Government, for example, provides incentives for employers to hire persons with disabilities and offers tax deductions to employers who modify the workplace to better serve the needs of employees with disabilities (Ontario Government, 2001; 2005; 2012). These initiatives make it easier for employers to acquire specialized equipment, or offer specific training to accommodate the diverse needs of persons with disabilities in the work force.
It is expected that human rights legislation and government incentives would enable persons with disabilities to be meaningfully engaged in the labour force; however, the existing lower employment rates for persons with disabilities suggest that there are still obstacles to overcome, both in the workplace and in the community at large (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2012). Research has indicated that persons with disabilities are more often unemployed than their non-disabled counterparts (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007; U.S. Department of Labor, 2001). Statistics Canada (2008) reported the employment rate for Canadians with disabilities as 49.3% in 2001 and 53.5% in 2006, while the employment rate for their non-disabled counterparts was 73.8 % in 2001 and 75.1% in 2006. An American study noted that 52% of non-working adults with disabilities felt discouraged from looking for work because they perceived that no appropriate jobs were available (U.S. Department of Labor, 2001).
Over the past twenty years, Canada has experienced an increase in students with disabilities attending Canadian universities and obtaining university degrees (Duquette, 2000; Fichten et al., 2003; 2012; Wolforth, 1998). This rise is likely a result of recent anti-discrimination laws, an increase in support services offered to persons with disabilities, and an increasing need for higher education to obtain employment (Duquette, 2000; Fichten et al., 2003; Hill, 1992). While a university education provides students with knowledge and enhanced skills that will assist them in the workforce, it appears that many educated persons with disabilities will not obtain the jobs they desire upon graduation (Fichten et al., 2012). A 2006 report from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (2006) found that the employment rate of postsecondary graduates with disabilities was 73.8% compared to 83.6% of their non-disabled peers.
Fichten et al. (2012) examined the experiences of graduates from three large, urban junior/community colleges 5 to 10 months after graduation. They found that while there was little difference in the employment rate between graduates with and without disabilities, the graduates with disabilities were employed less often in a job related to their field of study.
Discrimination, negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities, and physical workplace barriers can prevent persons with a disability from obtaining meaningful employment (National Organization on Disability, 2002a; Wehmen, 1996). Research indicates that 36% of employed Americans with a disability encountered some type of workplace discrimination because of their disability, and 50% of those persons believe they were refused a job because of their disability (Stoddard et al., 1998 as cited in Center, 2011). Typical examples of workplace discrimination include not being accommodated within the workplace, being given less responsibility, being paid less than workers without a disability, being refused a promotion, and being refused an interview (National Organization on Disability, 2002a).
While employers have been encouraged to remove physical barriers in the workplace, not much can be done to remove attitudinal barriers "which still bar disabled people from employment: access to initial and continued employment will still depend on employers" (Stevens, 2002, p. 782). Legislative movements help to promote equal access and opportunities, but offer limited assistance in decreasing the negative stereotypes that exist regarding persons with disabilities within the community. The incorporation of innovative technological devices may enable persons with disabilities to perform work related tasks; however, these modifications may not alter employers' perceptions of the capabilities of persons with disabilities or facilitate inclusion at the company level, particularly for those who are resistant to change (Stevens, 2002). Russell (2002) further argues that private enterprise adds additional challenges since private employers cannot be forced to make employment available to all those who seek it. Systemic barriers to employment for persons with disabilities, including persons with post-secondary education, therefore persist. As Russell (2002) comments in relation to initiatives designed to increase the employability of persons with disabilities, "however well intended, this seems a futile ploy in a fixed game where disabled workers are at the bottom of the competitive labour market and that labour market is, by design, structured to leave millions of workers under-employed and unemployed" (p. 130-131).
The employment interview process also poses barriers that oppress persons with disabilities (Duckett, 2000). Problems can surface regarding whether to disclose a disability, either before or during in an interview. Many choose to conceal it, since disabilities are typically associated with a deficit and persons with highly visible disabilities are particularly discriminated against (Duckett, 2000; Stevens, 2002). Furthermore, with increasing incentives for employers to hire persons with a disability, a person with a disability may prefer to be hired on merit and not solely because of their disability. Many interviews incorporate ability tests, pre-employment medical tests, and health-related questions, which can disadvantage persons with disabilities (Duckett, 2000). Duckett's qualitative study found that persons with disabilities felt anxious and manipulated while being interviewed, suggesting that employers ought to utilize more ethical, rather than simply technical methods of interviewing.
While it is a notable achievement for students with disabilities to graduate from university, many are often disappointed when they discover that they will not receive the jobs they aspired to obtain (Bynner & Parsons, 2002). Persons with disabilities are typically at risk of being marginalized in the workforce and can usually anticipate either unemployment or working in short-term, unskilled jobs (Bynner, Ferri & Shephard, 1997). While research can suggest some explanations for the low employment rates of persons with disabilities, it remains difficult to fully understand why the employment rates are so low, and more importantly, how this social problem can be remedied. It remains clear that increased Canadian human rights and anti-discrimination laws do not equate with increased employment rates. Russell (2002) found that while the Americans with Disabilities Act aims to increase employment for persons with disabilities, it has not resulted in increased employment, suggesting that the Act has not provided much support for working-aged persons with disabilities. Russell explains that this is, in part, due to the failure of the courts to enforce the Act, and because modern capitalism perpetuates the struggle of persons with disabilities in the U.S. labor force. She argues that the Act cannot diminish the systemic economic discrimination that exists today, and civil rights cannot guarantee employment or equality. Duckett (2000) furthers this argument by claiming that even with anti-discrimination legislation in place, employment rates for Americans with disabilities are "getting worse more slowly rather than getting better" (p. 1032).
There is a large body of research on the topic of school to work transitions, given its importance as a developmental phenomenon for individuals, as well as being a broader societal concern with economic (human capital) implications. The transition from school to work is a pivotal point in many students' lives, since it is related to their economic and psychosocial well-being (Gillies & Pedlar, 2003; Heckhausen, 2002), and it often determines their future (Bynner & Parsons, 2002). In this regard, the transition from school to work can very often be thought of as a right of passage to adulthood (Heckhausen, 2002). While this period of transition can present opportunities for growth and increased social mobility for some, it can also be a time for decline and downward mobility for others (Heckhausen, 2002). Those who are marginalized, and do not possess characteristics deemed necessary by employers, "face difficulties not only in entering employment but in sustaining any kind of fulfilling career" which can have far reaching implications on their lives and futures (Bynner & Parsons, 2002, p. 2).
It appears that students who do not receive the proper guidance and support during the transitional periods of their lives may become stuck inside a transition (Heckhausen, 2002). It has been recognized that support services within a university environment can better prepare students with a disability for the transition from school to work and for a new life within their community (National Educational Association of Disabled Students, 2012). Although the transitional experience of youth with disabilities is well documented (Davies & Beamish, 2009; Estrada-Hernandez, Wadsworth, Nietupski, Warth & Winslow, 2008; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997; Test, et al., 2009; Wagner & Blackorby, 1996; Winn & Hay, 2009), very little is known about the experiences of postsecondary graduates with disabilities and how students' lives evolve once they leave the university community in pursuit of meaningful employment (Fichten et al., 2012).
In order to address this gap, this qualitative study was undertaken in order to contribute to an understanding of the lives of university graduates with disabilities as they move through the transitional stage from post-secondary education to the workforce. The primary research questions were: (a) What is the current employment status of these recent university graduates?, (b) What helped or hindered the transitional process?, and (c) What role did formal and information supports play throughout this transition?
In order to protect the confidentiality of students, representatives from the Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Alumni Office of a south-western Ontario university emailed students and recent graduates the study's recruitment letter using their student email list on the researcher's behalf. Although emails were sent to over 200 students and alumni, only five persons indicated an interested in participating in the study. A key informant, who was acquainted with several graduates with a disability, contacted five other potential participants and provided them with information on the study. Four participants responded directly to the researcher who then scheduled interviews at a place and time convenient for them. The last participant was recruited through snowball sampling.
In 2003, open-ended and active interviews were conducted with 10 participants (three male and seven female) who had varying disabilities. Specifically, participants had sensory disabilities (including hearing and visual impairments), learning disabilities (including ADHD and Nonverbal Learning Disorder), and physical disabilities (including Spinal Muscular Dystrophy, Spinal Cord Injury, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, and Crohn's Disease). Participants were alumni from three different universities in Southwestern Ontario. The participants lived in cities across Ontario, namely Ottawa, Toronto, Goderich, Waterloo, and Kitchener, and had varied living arrangements, in that some lived alone, with their parents, another roommate, or a fiancé/spouse. All had completed an undergraduate university degree, and most completed post-graduate education, such as teachers college, graduate school or a college diploma. Requirements for participation were that individuals would have graduated from their last degree at least six months prior to the interview, and been living within the community no longer than three years. This length of time was chosen as it allowed sufficient time to experience community life after graduation, yet it was still recent enough for the alumni to vividly remember the transitional experience.
The framework for data analysis was Strauss and Corbin's grounded theory approach, where the researcher identified possible relationships among concepts and sets of concepts, but interpretations aimed to maintain the integrity of the data by including the perspectives and voices of participants (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). This involved constant movement between the data, concepts, and categories to fully understand and explain what was being researched. Once categories and patterns within the data were identified, themes began to emerge (Patton, 2002). Analysis of the data continued until saturation occurred. Data were triangulated by employing member checking of major emergent themes and peer reviews (Creswell, 2003). Ideas and constructs were clarified both throughout and following the interview process and self-reflections were documented in a research journal. These approaches assisted in establishing rigor and trustworthiness. NVivo software was used to assist in the organization and management of data. To ensure confidentiality, pseudonyms have been used for all participants and any identifying characteristics have been removed.
Data analysis revealed four main themes. These were: (a) Attaining Meaningful Employment, (b) Experiencing Discrimination, (c), Disclosing a Disability, and (d) Constructing an Identity.
Attaining Meaningful Employment
All but two of the participants were employed at the time of the interviews. Of those who were employed, few were fortunate to gain meaningful employment in an area of interest. Kayla, a graduate student, was hired by a local non-profit organization and worked part time as a research assistant for an academic department. Deborah completed teachers college after attending university, and was able to find a high school teaching position in Toronto. Corwin had several positions out of university before finding his calling with an organization that supports active living for persons with disabilities. Although Pamela was able to obtain employment within her field, it was not a full-time position.
While some of the participants expressed a measure of contentment with their current employment status, several held positions that were below their educational qualifications. Samantha and Kimberley were both Science majors; the former worked at a coffee shop while the latter worked as a live-in caregiver. Mary, who was seeking employment with the Government, found employment in retail. Amanda held several jobs upon graduation but none were commensurate with her qualifications, and she felt discouraged at not being able to gain more appropriate employment. As she stated:
I don't want to be an [administrator] for the rest of my life, you know; and sometimes I feel like that's what it's like for me…I keep thinking long term, thinking about opportunities. You know, I would like to be a traveling corporate coach or something like that (Amanda).
Many of these participants maintained goals towards the pursuit of more suitable employment by continuing their education, such as through law school or teachers college.
Two participants were unemployed. Brian completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science, and decided to return to school to complete a Master's degree. He attained a 10-month contract employment position upon graduation, but has since experienced difficulty finding employment that meets his needs and qualifications. Brian noted how employers often neglect that persons with a disability can also be educated. He discussed how there are often vocational employment positions available for a person with a disability; however, educated persons with disabilities easily fall through the cracks. Joseph, a university graduate with a visual impairment, moved to Ottawa five months prior to his interview and was still looking for work. Joseph remained positive since he felt that most people have difficulties finding jobs upon graduation. He expressed how university graduates typically have a rude awakening when looking for employment, since they often believe that they are more marketable than the results would indicate. He saw university as only the first step, and felt that experience and networking are crucial to gaining employment. As Joseph stated:
You sort of like to think that you are very marketable when you [are in university]…That illusion was broken quickly in a way, but I am not really that concerned…It's not easy to just jump into the job market and land one of the good jobs…I realize that having a degree is really a small first step in a way.
It is promising to note that all of the participants perceived university as a place that is inclusive and accepting of persons with a disability. The participants reported feeling comfortable within the university milieu and found the majority of staff and faculty accommodating, encouraging, and understanding. They also discussed how their universities, and its available services, provided them with a 'level playing field', which was not as apparent to them within the workforce. Nearly half of the participants discussed issues of systemic, structural, and attitudinal disability discrimination within the work force. This discrimination often left the participants wondering if employment equity actually exists, and it had a definite effect on their perception of employment inclusion. In regard to systemic barriers, Amanda discussed how a hierarchy typically exists within the employment setting, which affects those with a disability. She found it discouraging, and stated:
I also wonder if the employment equity stuff that some organizations and companies tell us that they do is true or not…I think a lot of people with disabilities are underemployed, drastically underemployed…I think we are often underestimated in some senses. I think in educational settings, like in universities, it's an even playing field because you are going to school for the same reason and there is no hierarchy in a learning structure. But I definitely think that people doubt your abilities and that's difficult…I feel like that sometimes [that she is discriminated against], I definitely feel like it's a challenge (Amanda).
Pamela echoed Amanda's comments, and further described how a workplace, namely the competitive and productivity-driven nature of it, creates an atmosphere of discrimination for persons with a disability. This resulted in participants experiencing attitudinal discrimination in the workforce, either while applying for a job, during an interview, or in the workforce itself. As noted by Pamela:
There still is discrimination against people with disabilities within the work place no matter how hard we try to rectify that…It almost seems like people with disorders or disabilities are not discouraged, but it is harder in some ways to be accepted…But you know in school, how it's kind of like everybody is equal, some people don't use the services there, and it is not discriminatory, like, most professors are, they're accommodating. It's not like that in the workplace; it really isn't.
Many of the participants experienced structural barriers which limited their employment opportunities. Some participants applied for jobs online, only to find that they were unable to access the building for an interview. Amanda discussed how the actual location and the inaccessibility of the employment setting can pose a barrier for persons with a disability:
I applied to a job with another not for profit organization here in town and I was shocked when I was given an interview…I did a drive by one night while I was in town before the interview and there was no ramp into the building, like it was an old two story beautiful Victorian home. And I emailed them. I was like, "You know I don't disclose that I am a person with a disability in general before I get to an interview because it is not something I agree with, but I am telling you I did the drive by and I can't figure out how I am going to get to the interview. So, at this point I am cancelling my interview" and they rescheduled and they had me meet them at a hotel and that kind of thing, but it was very unnerving.
Brian, a Master's graduate with Cerebral Palsy, believed his visible disability negatively affected his chances of attaining employment. As he stated: "I have to attribute it [not getting a job] some to disabilities. I mean in my case it is the first thing you see of me" (Brian). Others found that jobs are limited because of their physical requirements. Structural barriers and an uncertain career path can be particularly challenging for an individual with an acquired disability. Corwin, who acquired a physical disability while completing university, explained:
Doing my undergrad I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go. But, all of a sudden, being thrown into the situation that I am in, someone with a spinal cord injury, you know job opportunities are a little bit limited, just because of physical access to a lot of things and because of the physical requirements of a lot of different jobs…When I got done my undergrad, I was even more out in left field as to what I wanted to do with my career than I would have been had I not been hurt.
Although not blatant discrimination, many participants noted how unreliable, unavailable, and unaffordable transportation options pose real barriers to employment. Wheelchair accessible vehicles were noted as being too costly to obtain, and the lack of accessible public transportation and unreliable transportation services for persons with disabilities made it difficult for participants to compete in the employment market. Amanda expressed how her challenges with transportation, and consequently her dependence on her family for transportation, impacted her ability to compete:
I feel like I have to play a game sometimes. When someone calls and offers me an interview they always say, "Is such and such a good day for you"? And I always have to be, like, is that a day where my mom is working? I don't know, "Can I get back to you?" … But then I feel like I have such a disadvantage because you are not, it feels like you are not making as much of an effort to get there, and that bites.
Disclosing a Disability
Disclosure of a disability is a personal choice, since it is illegal for an interviewer to ask candidates disability-related questions (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 1996). However, it is suggested that persons with a disability needing adaptive technology should discuss with a potential employer how such devices would assist them in their job performance, as it would indicate problem-solving ability and display self-confidence (McInnes, 2012). Most participants were unsure whether or not they should disclose their disability and were unaware of the protocol surrounding disclosure. Pamela illustrated this quandary by stating, "I don't even know if I should tell …I kept it back because I didn't know if it would hurt my chances or help…When is the right time to disclose that?"
All of the participants discussed concerns surrounding the disclosure of their disability to potential or current employers. Some participants felt comfortable disclosing their disability, but the timing of when they disclosed their disability varied. Participants like Joseph and Kayla, who both had visible physical disabilities, felt comfortable disclosing to a potential employer once an interview date has been set. Kayla described how she had positive experiences when disclosing prior to, or even during an interview. She said that typically by the end of interviews, employers are excited to hire her because she makes a point of discussing issues of accessibility and accommodation openly and freely throughout the interview. Both Mary and Deborah disclosed their disability to their employers once they were hired and found their workplaces to be accepting and accommodating. Debora, a teacher, disclosed her hearing impairment to her colleagues and students once they got to know her so they would realize that her disability is not going to affect them. Several participants felt that their disability would not negatively impact job performance if adaptations and accommodations were made, but still disclosed so employers would not feel tricked or uncomfortable. Persons with visible physical disabilities, like Joseph, chose to disclose because he was sensitive to the needs and reactions of employers, and as such, did not like to spring it on them. As he stated:
I don't really like to spring it on people though, because I think it is an important thing for people, regardless of how I feel about it myself. I have been blind my whole life, so I don't, it's no big difference for me, but for people it is a big issue. So it is important to find a way to be sensitive about it I guess (Joseph).
These participants also felt that open communication early on set their relationship with their employer off to a good start.
Several participants did not disclose their disability to potential employers since they did not require accommodations, nor did their disability negatively impact their employment duties. Persons with invisible disabilities clarified that they were not trying to be untruthful, nor were they ashamed of their disability. Rather, they felt that it was unnecessary to disclose a disability unless it began to affect their job. As Pamela stated:
I don't want you to get the impression that I am ashamed or whatever, because it is not that at all…I am not trying to deceive anybody. But, if I can learn how to get a handle on it, then I don't really feel the need to go out and tell people. And if I can prove to an employer that I've got the education, I've got this and that, this doesn't really seem that critical at the time, unless of course the communication within the workplace starts to break down.
Participants with visible disabilities did not have the same flexibility to conceal a disability when on the job, but some felt they should not have to explicitly declare a disability on a résumé when the disability is not a hindrance to the position.
Constructing an Identity
In order to enhance employment opportunities for persons with a disability, many employers specifically target or recruit persons with disabilities for a specific position. Although participants identified issues around targeted employment, some believed that attaining employment, by any means, is fair in today's employment market. Mary, for example, explained how she was only able to obtain an interview with the Government after she disclosed that she had a disability. Although she did not want to use the label of disability as a way of getting ahead, she realized that people need to use every advantage given to them. Joseph also believed that people should feel positive about obtaining employment, regardless of how they attained it, as people are frequently awarded jobs not solely based on performance. As Joseph stated:
People get jobs for lots of different reasons, whether it is who you know, or nationality, where you are from, what language you speak.…I don't really like the idea of getting hired because of having a disability, but the reality is that it is hard to get a job…If you do an effective job, once you are there…you can move around or prove yourself to other people and yourself. But it's kind of painful too for a lot of people. Maybe the people you are working with, maybe someone who was more qualified didn't get the job, and so that creates resentment. It's hard; it's a hard one.
The participants were generally supportive of attaining employment by any means possible, and felt that targeted employment helps to increase the presence and awareness of persons with a disability within the workplace. However, they were cognizant of the harmful psychological effects associated with accepting a job based on disability, as opposed to solely on qualifications. As Mary stated:
Would you be hired because you are part of the quota or because of your qualifications?…It is the employee who always has in the back of their mind 'Am I here because of this?'
Amanda discussed how she felt that she was hired because of her disability because it helped the organization appear to have a diverse community:
Honestly, I believe I got this job because I am a person with a disability…I think this organization, in general, it looks good to have a diverse community within the organization. I am not the only minority who works here. I wouldn't say I resent anything necessarily but it definitely, I think a lot of it, sometimes. But, I don't know. It is a tough one
The participants expressed that employers should refrain from targeted employment and instead, fill positions with staff members who may have a disability but are also fully qualified. The participants preferred that employers hire persons with disabilities as part of their general hiring practice, because an inclusive environment with qualified employees is good for business. They believed that government support could also play a role to ensure that employers hire staff members that represent the general population.
The participants' identity was also impacted by the overall transitional experience. Some participants found it difficult to evaluate their lives in light of where they expected to be at this stage in their lives. Amanda expressed how her current life arrangement was not as she had expected when she graduated from university. During the interview, she reflected back to when she was younger and realized how she had not yet accomplished certain life goals. She found it difficult to discuss her current situation as compared to her dreams, and even began to question whether her dreams were actually attainable. As Amanda stated:
I definitely feel like it's a challenge. I think sometimes when you are young and you are thinking about what you want to do…and I would be somewhere else doing something else, you know, so, sometimes it is a hard bullet to swallow (crying)…I also think when you are young you don't think long term about the realities of your situation….[Interviewer: Are you ok, do you still want to continue? ] Yeah no I am fine, just thinking. I used to think about this stuff, it's painful, you know.
Kimberley also described how her life was not exactly as she expected it to be. She completed university with the intention of becoming a teacher, but Kimberley's life situation changed, and her plans were put on hold. Pamela also felt that her current life situation was not as she had originally planned, as she was preparing for law school and was concerned about getting into a good school. She found that when she was in university, she envisioned graduating and being done with school, but once again she was back in limbo waiting to get into university for graduate work. She also felt like she was in a strange stage in her life because although she had a full time job, she still didn't feel like an adult, who was equal to her colleagues. As she stated:
I have to admit, the change from school to full-time job has been quite an experience. School is so different from being, like I am the youngest one at my job, so even when I try to dress professional it's a younger, it has a younger feel to it. Do you know what I am trying to say? Even the way I talk, if I try to talk really professional, very da da da, sometimes it will come out wrong, I can't relate to people that I work with.
Kimberley also felt like she was in a state of limbo. She discussed how people in university often become complacent, and she now wished that she had given more thought about her future. Brian was also of the belief that upon graduating from university with a Master's degree that his life would fall into place and that he would easily get a job. Regrettably, Brian felt that as time went by, he would be missing opportunities to get his foot in the door and move his way up the employment ladder. As he stated:
Had the time lines worked the way they do for most people, that would maybe be coming out of major job number one, into a second type of position that might be a promotion from some agency or something, and be a little more roughly where I think I should be now…but not having been through whatever this first door is, and I mean I think it is just a matter of finding one to be a stepping stone to the next, …[I]… should in many ways have the world by the tail, but yet here we are trying to get through one door.
Findings from this study suggest that educated, university graduates with disabilities continue to face structural, attitudinal, and systemic barriers when seeking meaningful employment. Many even experienced what they perceived to be blatant discrimination because they had a disability. Although many were employed, most were underemployed and felt that they were not living the life that they expected prior to graduation. This realization, coupled with perceptions of employment inequalities, clearly impacted their sense of self and their sense of identity. The participants described University as a place where they felt comfortable and included and had access to a range of supports. It was almost as though once they left university, they had to embrace a label of disability in order to obtain employment. They also had to learn how to navigate their way through the employment system. Specifically, they had to learn how and when to conceal a disability and when to seek supports and accommodations. Given the difficulty of finding work, and the challenges experienced once employed, it may be that some persons with disabilities choose to extend their time at University by pursuing advanced degrees in order to remain comfortable and supported.
Many of the hardships experienced by the graduates could have been prevented by implementing simple strategies both within universities and in the workplace. As previously mentioned, the participants noted how members within the university community, including faculty and staff at the offices for students with disabilities, helped make the university a place where they felt included and supported. This is a vivid endorsement of the universities attended by the participants and should be a model for other public and private sectors. However, postsecondary institutions can further support their graduates with disabilities by preparing them for the transition into the workforce. Participants mentioned that staff members from the University's Office for Persons with Disabilities offered informal support by providing employment references or friendly advice. The universities could, however, provide more formal transitional support, such as offering sessions on résumé writing, interviewing, and job searching, all specifically geared to address the particular challenges faced by persons with disabilities. A transitional support worker could be hired as a liaison between the university and the workforce and a mentorship program and social support and networking options may also be valuable.
Workplaces are also encouraged to adopt person first attitudes where they hire based on qualifications while adhering to a basic code of respect and understanding. Employers must be sensitive to the fact that persons with disabilities may communicate and approach work tasks in a way that is different from other employees; however, it does not mean that persons with disabilities will not contribute effectively to the workplace. Employers should ask questions, learn about the person as an individual, and understand what the person's disability actually entails. Biases, stereotypes, and preconceived expectations of persons with a disability need to be reflected on and then curbed. Negative beliefs, fears, or uncertainty about hiring a person with a disability often stem from a lack of awareness. Educational opportunities within all levels of the workforce related to disability, including awareness about workplace accommodations, incentives, and accessibility standards would be an asset.
Undoubtedly there have been great strides in ensuring that persons with a disability are able to achieve post-secondary education, but as one participant, Bryan, questioned, have these incentives actually assisted persons with a disability in attaining employment? As he stated:
I think people with disabilities of my generation, to even have contemplated the university type experiences, have gotten somewhere. Because I think too much before, we started with elementary type schooling. There wouldn't have been that possibility [of University]…But on the other hand, where exactly are we in the end of the process?…I think there is a basic openness to having people with disabilities first off educated and second off in some sort of employment role, which is all helpful in the grand picture, but the specific picture, I am not sure if people with disabilities are better off in general (Brian).
Even more, do laws and government incentives contribute to enhancing the lives of persons with disabilities and our communities, financially, socially, structurally, and attitudinally? Findings from this study suggest that the state of the employment market does not meet the tenets of the critical disability movement which holds government, and employers, responsible for providing economic and social supports to enable "social and economic integration, self-determination, legal and social rights" (Rioux, 2003, p. 296).
The fact then that only two (or 20%) of the participants in this study were temporarily unemployed is encouraging, and perhaps exceptional when compared to the aforementioned national statistics. This positive employment outcome may be a result of the unique sample, in which many of the participants had post-graduate degrees and thus had the resources and qualifications necessary for employment. However, the lack of meaningful employment, particularly employment that met their interests and qualifications, had negative implications for participants. Employment is essential as it is the key to most of the critical aspects of life, such as housing, transportation, leisure, education and general community involvement (National Organization on Disability, 2002b). Exclusion from employment and these key sites of social life has far reaching implications. It influences one's identity, self-esteem, mental health, and sense of worth (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2012a; Sheeran, Abrams & Orbell, 1995). It influences one's financial status and stability, which impacts overall quality of life, including access to nutrition, physical fitness, and social engagement (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2012b). It creates stigma, prejudices, and assumptions. Ultimately, this exclusion limits the ability of persons with disabilities to meaningfully engage in life, thereby adding to the perceived 'burden' of disability. This burden of disability serves to perpetuate biomedical and psychological models of illness and disease where people with disabilities are associated with dysfunction and dependence, and objectified in ways such as being a 'victim' or 'helpless' (Dupuis et al., 2011; Hockey & James, 1993).
The burden of disability further supports bio-medical approaches that focus on 'fixing' individuals while little attention is paid to rectifying oppressive social structures. One would only need to conduct a cursory search of biomedical articles related to disability to see how disability is constructed as a financial burden to the healthcare system. Literature pertaining to caregiving for persons with disabilities will reveal how disability is constructed as a social burden to caregivers, without much recognition of the reciprocity that is involved in these caring relationships (Dupuis, Epp, & Smale, 2004; Dupuis & Norris, 1997). The low employment rates of persons with disabilities is seen as a financial burden to society and strain on our economic system, without recognizing how persons with disabilities are being burdened by a society that is unaccommodating and unwelcoming. Perhaps more attention needs to focus on the social construction of disability in order to deconstruct and dismantle harmful and stereotypical notions of disability. It is also necessary to move towards more humanistic and empowering perspectives of disabilities, such as the human rights approach to disability, which views disability as an inherent part of society where the responsibility of disability is shared among society (Rioux, 2002; 2003). As Wendell (1997) states:
The problems of living with a disability are not private problems, separable from the rest of life and the rest of society. They are problems which can and should be shared throughout the culture as much as we share the problems of love, work and family life…We need to bring this knowledge into the culture and to transform the culture and society so that everyone can receive and make use of it, so that it can be fully integrated, along with disabled people, into a shared social life (p. 277).
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