Breaking down barriers: supporting disabled students to the workplace

No one’s career should end with graduation, says Victoria Passant, youth employment programme manager, Leonard Cheshire

Graduation should be about one door closing and another opening. For many disabled students, though, it isn’t. For many of them, graduation marks the end of specialist disability-related support, meaning that second door stays closed.

A lot of universities have become excellent at providing adjustments, guidance and assistance to disabled students at every stage of their academic lives. Many of the students we work with for our internship programme – Change 100 – for example, have been provided with assistive equipment and access to dedicated disability support services.

The challenge for many of these graduates is the transition from an environment where there is structured support available to one where they will have to be proactive in securing the adjustments they need to work at their best – and, even then, many find employers are not initially co-operative.

So, one of the main things we do with Change 100 is arm disabled graduates with the knowledge and confidence to get what they need from the workplace. This is about them understanding, first, that they have the right to ask and, second, what they can ask for. 

Tackling anxiety

Something that also needs to happen far more widely is to tackle anxiety among disabled graduates looking to enter the workforce. Understandably, there is a lot of fear around disclosing information around a disability to potential employers. It is crucial to help graduates recognise that a job interview is as much about interviewing a potential employer as it is about being interviewed for a role. An employer that provides a personalised, supportive approach for disabled employees where they feel comfortable sharing their disability needs is, simply put, a good employer. Graduates should settle for no less.

There is a role here for universities and their career services. Career advisors are in the perfect position to give disabled graduates knowledge and tips about getting what they need from employers. With this advice, and strong links with organisations who are good on inclusion, universities could send disabled graduates out armed to the teeth when it comes to starting their careers. It would also be good to see greater links made between career services and disability services on campus – this will help ensure no one falls through the net in terms of advice for their next steps post-education.

Another task for universities and their careers services is educating the employers they work with about disability, because a lot of myths need to be busted. One of the biggest barriers for disabled graduates is the persisting idea that employing a disabled person is somehow more difficult than employing anyone else.

The opposite is generally true. Most workplace adjustments are small and inexpensive – adjusted start and finish times, for example. For adjustments that do incur a cost – like assistive technology or adapted desks – there is financial support available from the government’s Access to Work programme. As it stands, the average cost of an adjustment for a business is just £30.

Changing views

Many employers on our graduate programme talk about how much taking on a disabled intern changed their views of disability and prompted them to look at inclusion across the rest of the organisation.

The result is a workplace that better holds on to its staff and draws from a bigger pool of talent in general.

This is simply a case of educating employers. Where universities are in dialogue with employers already, say for graduate jobs fairs, this is a perfect opportunity to put the spotlight on this issue to ensure businesses are welcoming disabled people into their workforce. If not, this could be a case of referring contacts to specialist services, such as Leonard Cheshire. We can invite employers to take part in our Change 100 graduate internship scheme. This gives businesses the chance to learn how easy it is to be an inclusive employer, by taking on disabled interns with our support and experience to guide them.

The sad truth is that, right now, not many are getting it right when it comes to making the labour market genuinely inclusive. Imagine what potential we could unlock if everyone did.


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