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Navigating the Career Development of Students with Disabilities: A Collaborative Approach

Disability Knowledge Community
March 19, 2015

As you are getting ready to travel to NOLA, preparing to joing virtually, or just following the conference from afar, make sure you check out the Disability Knowledge Community article, along with all the other KCs, in the 2015 NASPA Knowledge Communities Publication.  The entire publication can be found here:  https://www.naspa.org/about/blog/2015-knowledge-communities-publication

Here is the Disability KC Article:


Scott M. McAward
Director, Center for Disability Services
The University of Utah

The number of students with disabilities attending higher education has continued to grow. At present, approximately 11% of college students have a disability (Raue & Lewis, 2011), and this estimate has almost doubled since 1999 (Lewis & Farris, 1999). Although the increased access to higher education for individuals with disabilities is a positive force, disability services providers often struggle to provide adequate support beyond the required academic accommodations, and this is a disservice to students with disabilities who need greater personal, social, and vocational support in order to be successful in college and beyond.

One critical area for service providers is the career development of students with disabilities. Overall, persons with disabilities are chronically under- or unemployed. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2015), the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities in December 2014 was 11.2%, compared with 5.1% of those without disabilities. Although greater access to postsecondary education is a key factor in better career achievement for students with disabilities, more attention must be given to help them develop job skills. On many campuses, career services centers are an effective resource in helping all students explore and attain a career; however, students with disabilities often present unique challenges that traditional career counselors may not be adequately prepared to address. Disability services providers can serve a vital role in partnering with career services staff in order to better serve students with disabilities.

Research has shown that even before students with disabilities reach higher education, they have encountered challenges that have impacted their ability to focus on career development (Hitchings et al., 2001). These include the direct impact of their disability on their learning, the amount of time required to compensate for a disability, and the low expectations of others. These factors often combine to create a lack of vocational awareness. As a result, some students with disabilities arrive on college campuses already at a disadvantage when it comes to career development. 

Briel and Wehman (2005) identified nine challenges students with disabilities face in terms of career development:

  • Being comfortable with their disability

  • Building self-esteem and confidence

  • Learning about their disability and its impact on learning or the work environment

  • Becoming familiar with compensatory strategies and assistive technology

  • Learning about protections afforded and responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

  • Acquiring the self-disclosure skills and the ability to request accommodations

  • Obtaining workplace supports through community resources

  • Learning how to manage insensitive employer comments and attitudes

  • Gaining traditional employment experiences (p. 293)

​One approach disability services providers can take to address these needs is to collaboratively promote career development for their students. A successful model is the work done by the University of Washington DO-IT center (Burgstahler, 2001).

When considering such collaborations, four key areas are helpful to consider: skills development, personal awareness, knowledge of the world of work, and interpersonal skills. The first area—skill development—encompasses the student’s knowledge of their field of study’s content. Disability services providers spend a large proportion of their time supporting this area through academic advising, classroom accommodations, and other traditionally provided services. Over the past two decades, the importance of increasing students’ knowledge of assistive technology and how they can use it effectively has become an important component in this area.

The second area is personal awareness, which includes a student’s awareness of his or her disability, his or her confidence and self-esteem, and other personal characteristics. Disability services providers can play a role in this area by collaborating more closely with campus counseling centers and wellness centers. In addition, support groups and other activities that can help students better recognize their own strengths and growth areas can be beneficial.

The third area, the world of work, is critical, as it can go a long way in helping students with disabilities develop careers. Understanding career opportunities related to a field of study is crucial, so one way to help students is to assist them with exploring and obtaining internships; career services offices are essential partners in this endeavor. Through working more closely with a career services office, providers can discover internships that may be specifically geared toward students with disabilities. Helping students connect with a career services provider early in their academic careers can also be a vital piece in their long-term success.

The fourth area, interpersonal skills, includes helping students develop self-disclosure skills and the ability to ascertain when and how to disclose a need for an accommodation. They must also be able to explore how to handle workplaces that may be unaccustomed to having employees with disabilities, while at the same time being aware of the legal protections afforded them under employment law. This can be a tremendously challenging task. Addressing these issues with students throughout their academic careers can help them develop these important skills. For example, help students to decide if, when, and how much to self-disclose in their coursework; it offers a learning model for their future careers. In addition, disability services providers can help foster self-advocacy and self-determination skills, which often contribute to greater success in postsecondary and career settings (Getzel & Thoma, 2008).

In summary, disability services providers must collaborate outside of the disability office to further the career development of students with disabilities. A key collaborator is the career services office, whose staff gives career development expertise, while the disability services staff can offer expertise about disability. When the two work together, an integrative approach to career development can be achieved. In addition to the career services office, other key collaborators include counseling centers, wellness centers, and employers that recruit
on campus for internships. Students with disabilities can benefit from this integrative approach that not only supports their success on campus but also their success in the workplace.  


Briel, L., & Wehman, P. (2005). Career planning and placement. In E. Getzel & P. Wehman (Eds.), Going to college: Expanding (pp. 291–305). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Burgstahler, S. (2001). A collaborative model to promote career success for students with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 16, 209–215.

Getzel, E. E., & Thoma, C. A. (2008). Experience of college students with disabilities and the importance of self-determination in higher education settings. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 31(2), 77–84.

Hitchings, W. E., Luzzo, D. A., Ristow, R., Horvath, M., Retish, P., & Tanners, A. (2001). The career development needs of college students with learning disabilities: In their own words. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(1), 8–17.

Lewis, L., & Farris, E. (1999). An institutional perspective on students with disabilities in postsecondary education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Raue, K., & Lewis, L. (2011). Students with disabilities at degree- granting postsecondary institutions. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Labor. (2015). Current disability employment statistics. Retrieved January 9, 2015 from http://www.dol. gov/odep