Transition to the Workplace: Students with Disabilities

The Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development interviewed Anne Lewis, a Disability Services Specialist at the Office for Services for Students with Disabilities. She shared her insights on disclosing disabilities to employers and advice for navigating the workplace transition for students.

1). What are some of the employee rights that students with disabilities may have? Additionally, are there any resources in particular (websites, organizations, toll-free numbers) that would be helpful in helping students with disabilities better navigate the workplace? 

The transition from being a student to an employee with disabilities includes the right to reasonable accommodations and protection from discrimination in the workplace. The Job Accommodation Network, sponsored by the US Department of Labor, provides resources for individuals with disabilities on disclosure, accommodations, and more. It also lists resources for employees who feel their rights have been violated. Ability Jobs is another resource that advertises jobs for those seeking companies with disability training and procedures.

2). Do students need to disclose their disability to employers (and to what extent do students need to disclose?), and if so, how and when could they go about doing so? 

The short answer is no; employees do not have to disclose their disabilities.  However, at the same time, if you need accommodations to be successful in your job, then you have a legal right to those accommodations if you ask and enter the process with your employer. It is up to the employee if and when they choose to disclose their disability and seek accommodations. Still, some things to consider would be how soon they may be in need of accommodations and how much an employer’s support of an inclusive environment weighs into the decision of whether to accept or decline an opportunity.  

3). What are some challenges that students with disabilities might face in the workplace? How can they overcome these challenges?

As in daily life, there are ups and downs relating to disabilities and accommodations in the workplace. Sometimes misconceptions, bias, and stigma exist, and sometimes inclusivity and support exists. Additionally, there may not be clear processes for requesting accommodations, and the individuals responsible for handling these requests may not be properly trained in disability law and accommodation. As a result, students with disabilities may have to advocate for themselves and educate their employers on their needs. It is important for students to know what accommodations they need and to be able to request them, as this process may be different from what they are used to in the college system. Employers may also push back on providing accommodations because they are unaware of their legal obligations or because they see accommodations as too expensive. This can create a delicate balance for students in terms of when and how to disclose their disability to potential employers. It may be helpful for students to research potential employers and ask questions about their disability policies and practices before deciding whether or not to pursue a job opportunity.

4). How can fellow students become allies for students with disabilities?

Anne emphasizes the importance of respecting boundaries and not making assumptions about what a person can and cannot do. It’s important to respect a person’s privacy and not define them solely by their disability. If someone with a disability is able to do something in a way that looks different from what you’re used to, it’s important to let them do it and not take away their independence. When discussing accessibility, it’s important to have people with disabilities at the table to ensure that decisions are not being made for them without their input. If this is not possible, doing research and bringing data to the discussion is helpful. If you’re in a position to promote accessibility, it’s important to do so without hesitation, such as making sure things are close-captioned or easily accessible. This not only benefits people with disabilities, but it also sends a positive message that the company or individual understands the importance of accessibility.

5). Any general advice you would recommend for students transitioning from college to their first career?

Anne advises students to know their comfort level with self-advocating for their needs when considering whether a workplace environment is a good fit. Some companies will rely on the employee for guiding accommodations, which can be uncomfortable for some people.  Other companies will have set processes that dictate the accommodation process.  Knowing what accommodations you might need in the workplace is important, as no one will identify them for you. Programs like internships and clinical experiences can provide students with a better understanding of what being in a workplace is like compared to being in a classroom and what accommodations they need. The transition from college to the workplace is an exciting and sometimes stressful experience and Anne encourages individuals to seek support and resources during this time, including evaluating job offers for inclusivity. We recommend connecting with Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi from the Fleishman Center of Career and Professional Development and the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, as we can help with any questions you may have. 

By Yaleza Fernandez
Yaleza Fernandez