For people with disabilities, attitudes and information can open up working world

By Flora Richards Gustafson on November 25, 2013
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If you’re healthy, you probably don’t anticipate facing more career challenges than those already out there. If you have a disability, you might feel anxious about managing your professional life after graduation.                 

One of the biggest challenges is finding a job. According to the Department of Labor, in September 2013 the unemployment rate among those with a disability was 13.1 percent, almost twice that of those without a disability, at 6.8 percent. Some people with disabilities and a college degree report they feel discontent with their current jobs because they are employed below their educational qualifications.

Many individuals with a disability use their own vehicle to commute. Those who don’t sometimes experience difficulties obtaining or keeping a job if they lack reliable or affordable public transportation, carpooling options or rides.

Candice Siegfried, a self-employed Web developer, became disabled in an auto collision as a child.  She uses a wheelchair  and says, “For me, the commute is the hardest challenge. While I can, and sometimes do, complete some programming from my home office … I have a wheelchair van that allows easy access to my clients’ locations.”


Some employers feel reluctant to hire those with disabilities because they think they’ll create more work for their supervisors or won’t get along well with other employees.

Shortly after finishing college, Kyle Gustafson became disabled in an auto collision that damaged his hip.  “Employers don’t understand people with disabilities unless they’re disabled themselves, and most aren’t,” he shares. “It’s simple for them to think that people who are disabled are lazy or high-maintenance because they may need, for example, extra breaks or ergonomic chairs. It’s common for disabled people to need a flexible schedule or time off because of chronic pain, doctor appointments or because they’re sick from the side effects that prescribed medications cause. The truth is that a lot of disabled people usually work harder and are more loyal to a company that gives them a chance.”

Siegfried asserts a similar view: “It may not seem like a lot, but attitude is 95 percent of my battle for my business and career. If I am determined to do something, you better believe I am going to do everything in my ability to get it done.”

Lack of hiring support

The services that connect disabled individuals with meaningful employment are too few. Companies that seek disabled individuals sometimes have a hard time recruiting employees who fit this demographic because qualified job seekers may be reluctant to disclose their disability. Some companies also overlook the benefits of internship and volunteer positions that create a pool of potential employees, disabled and otherwise, from which to choose.

Gustafson reports that it seems as if some state vocational rehabilitation case workers place disabled clients lower on their list of priorities, pointing out, “They also work with ex-prisoners who may go to jail if they don’t have a job (because unemployment violates a parole term), so people who are disabled often get bumped and receive less attention.”

Small and medium-sized businesses are less likely to hire disabled individuals because they may not have the funds to create an accommodating workplace. A little over half of disabled employees in the U.S. reported in May 2012 that they had a hard time completing work duties. The causes of the difficulties can include factors like pain, medication side effects, trouble reaching, and the inability to sit or stand for long periods.

Overcoming the obstacles

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 states that an employer cannot discriminate against a qualified job applicant or employee or make an employment decision because of a disability. A company is obligated to make reasonable accommodations for a disabled worker as long as they don’t create an undue hardship. Adjustments may include creating a flexible work schedule, making changes to training materials or modifying equipment.

As you transition from high school or college to the working world, join a program that helps you prepare for a new life and the workforce. These programs offer support, career advice and references, as well as help with resume writing and job interview preparation.

An internship, mentoring or shadowing program can help you gain experience and skills, and can give you an advantage when a position in the company becomes available. Some training programs help participants gain professional certifications free or for a reduced fee.For Siegfried, “A big help was back in high school. One of the school’s career guidance counselors was a monumental help. ... He helped me get an internship at Boeing.”

Learn about the duties performed in a particular line of work. Ask a company if it has a mentorship or internship program, or even volunteer opportunities, in which you can participate. Interview a disabled employee who does what you want to do. As technologies advance, more professionals enjoy the opportunity to work from home, especially college graduates. By learning what you can do (instead of focusing on what you can’t), you’ll feel more motivated and can tailor your educational path for professional success.

Activity and attitude
Physicians often prescribe physical therapy for individuals who are disabled. “With things like pain,” Siegfried reports, “I personally have found that keeping active in the gym helps. I have a personal trainer who helps me keep my core muscles below my spinal cord injury more toned so I get less micro strains in my lower muscles.”

Gustafson and Siegfried both insist that attitude is the key. “Attitude will not make everything better,” says Siegfriend, “but attitude will help greatly in the desire and ability to handle difficult situations. Attitude will help you overcome physical limitations and mental blocks that are lurking around every corner. … Attitude runs self-drive and determination.”

Being your own best advocate, preparing with the right skills and knowledge, and tapping the support and resources available can get you on the path to the career of your dreams.

Resources to help people with disabilities enter the workforce
  • National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth: Helps disabled young people receive services to help them live independently, get a career and find employment. (
  • National Center on Secondary Education and Transition: Coordinates national resources and provides information about transitioning. (
  • National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHY): The “Transition to Adulthood” page gives tips about transitioning for those graduating high school. (   
  • Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities: Colleges and companies that strive to increase the employment rate. (
  •  Explore careers, education and training, get help with resumes and interviews, and find career services near you.

About the Author

Flora Richards Gustafson

Flora Richards Gustafson

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