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Hot Topics in Education

Enabling Employment: Post-Secondary Education Needs to Equip Students with Disabilities with Skills for the Work World

May 04, 2017
Elizabeth Martin
Elizabeth Martin
Research Associate
Education and Strategic Initiatives

The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE) has partnered with the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) on a project examining the state of accessibility and accommodation in Canadian post-secondary education for students with disabilities.

The research will inform the Government of Canada’s consultation on a new federal accessibility act. The Conference Board’s research is part of a larger project, led by NEADS, that aims to help PSE institutions and employers prepare adaptable, highly skilled workers for a rapidly changing work world.

Students with Disabilities in Canadian PSE

Psychiatric conditions are the most prevalent disabilities among Canadian PSE students: 7 per cent of students identify psychiatric conditions as disabling (See Chart 1.) This figure is likely conservative, as one in 10 students had a dual diagnosis of anxiety and depression in 2016.1(See Chart 2.) Attention deficit disorder/ADHD, chronic illnesses, and learning disabilities round out the most common disabilities among PSE students.

chart 1

In other words, many of the most common disabilities among PSE students are not readily apparent. This, combined with a lack of awareness of the variety of disabilities and negative perceptions about the cost and effort to implement reasonable accommodations, means the needs of students with disabilities too easily go unnoticed or ignored.

A Troubling Transition to Employment

Despite a growing proportion of Canadians with disabilities attaining a post-secondary education, people with disabilities remain disproportionately underrepresented in the labour force. Just 52 per cent of working-age Canadians with disabilities are employed, versus 76 per cent for people without disabilities.2 From both equity and economic perspectives, there are important reasons for growing and retaining the number of people with disabilities in the workforce.3

Of course, the transition to meaningful employment is also difficult for PSE graduates without disabilities.4 But one reason that graduates with disabilities continue to fare worse in employment could be that they lack access to the practical and professional skill-building opportunities that other students participate in during their post-secondary education.

In Pursuit of Accessible Learning Experiences

Students with disabilities often face discrimination and barriers in relation to practical, experiential, and work-integrated learning components.5 These experiences, which many employers value in prospective job candidates, can be inaccessible to some students with disabilities if they do not request and receive accommodations.

Even with accommodations, students with disabilities face stigma, discrimination, and skepticism about their fitness for employment. Many fear disclosing their disability for these reasons, even if doing so would improve their chances of success in their chosen PSE program and career.6

Many students with disabilities will never need accommodations to fully participate in post-secondary education and employment. But for some, accommodations are essential.7 More students with disabilities would benefit if they knew that accommodations were available to them upon request. More vital yet, increased awareness of disabilities by faculty, co-op and career-service support staff, and PSE institutions’ employer partners can go a long way toward fostering an inclusive and proactive environment where teaching and learning is designed with universal access in mind.

Enabling Professional Development Opportunities for All Students

Our latest project at The Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education asks, “What are Canadian PSE institutions doing to improve access to meaningful skill-building experiences for students with disabilities? We want to know about practices that are helping to improve access for students with disabilities, including:

  • practical, experiential, and work-integrated learning, such as hands-on training with laboratory and technical equipment, co-ops and internships, clinical placements, fieldwork, community-service learning, and applied research projects;
  • extra- and co-curricular learning opportunities, such as clubs and associations, study and work abroad, volunteering, mentoring, entrepreneurship, professional or skill-based certifications, and more.

It is imperative to us that this research examines how employers, community organizations, and professional societies can help students with disabilities access these learning opportunities. Our research asks:

  • How do employers engage with PSE institutions to support students with disabilities in student work or volunteer placements?
  • Do professional societies offer guidance and best practices to help employers, PSE institutions, and students work together to design appropriate accommodations?
  • Are these interventions effective?

The full research project will include consultations with students with disabilities, campus disability officers, PSE leaders, employers, academic organizations, and professional societies, and a review of relevant literature and data.
Helping us in this research is a network of collaborators from PSE institutions across Canada. But we need your help too!

If you have information that you think would be valuable, or if you would like more information, please contact SPSE’s lead researcher on this project, Liz Martin.


Related Event

5th Skills and Post-Secondary Education Summit 2017
November 29–November 30 2017 • International Plaza Hotel & Conference Centre • Toronto, Ontario

Related Websites

The Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education

National Educational Association of Disabled Students

1    National College Health Assessment, Canadian Reference Group, 2016.

2    Statistics Canada, Canadian Survey on Disability, 2012.

3    Ruth Wright, “Welcoming People With Disabilities Into Our Corporate Communities Is a Win-Win,” Hot Topics in Accessible Employment Practices (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2015); Lisa Schur, Douglas Kruse, and Peter Blanck, “Corporate Culture and the Employment of Persons With Disabilities,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law 23, no. 1 (2005): 3–20.

4    Sally Lindsay, Laura R. Hartman, and Melissa Fellin, “A Systematic Review of Mentorship Programs to Facilitate Transition to Post-Secondary Education and Employment for Youth and Young Adults With Disabilities,” Disability and Rehabilitation 38, no. 14 (2016): 1329–49; Jennifer Gillies, “University Graduates With a Disability: The Transition to the Workforce,” Disability Studies Quarterly 32, no. 3 (2012).

5    Kate Andre and Stephen Manson, “Students With Disabilities Undertaking Clinical Education Experience,” Collegian 11, no. 4 (2004): 26–30; Gerald D. Klein, “Student Disability and Experiential Education,” Journal of Effective Teaching 9, no. 3 (2009): 11–37.

6    Terri J. Ashcroft, Wanda M. Chernomas, Penny L. Davis, Ruth A. K. Dean, Marilyn Seguire, Carla R. Shapiro, and Linda M. Swiderski, “Nursing Students With Disabilities: One Faculty’s Journey,” International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship 5, no. 1 (2008): 1–15; Adam Easterbrook, Laura Bulk, Parisa Ghanouni, Michael Lee, Bathsheba Opini, Earllene Roberts, Gurdeep Parhar, and Tal Jarus, “The Legitimization Process of Students With Disabilities in Health and Human Service Educational Programs in Canada,” Disability & Society 30, no. 10 (2015): 1505–20; Clodagh Nolan and Claire Irene Gleeson, “The Transition to Employment: The Perspectives of Students and Graduates With Disabilities.” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research (2016): 1–15.

7    Lori Briel and Elizabeth Getzel, “Internships in Higher Education: Promoting Success for Students With Disabilities,” Disability Studies Quarterly 21, no. 1 (2001).


Liz Martin is a Research Associate in the Education and Strategic Initiatives group at The Conference Board of Canada and a researcher for The Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education.


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