Students with disabilities fight more career obstacles

Maggie Delaney has a bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University, a master’s degree in science and social work from the University of Louisville, first-rate internship experiences and a killer resume, but she lacks one thing that could help her snag some good jobs – a driver’s license.

Visual impairment keeps Delaney out of the driver’s seat, but not from getting to where she wants to go. Academic honors, community leadership and prestigious internships have kept this AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability) scholarship recipient busy. However, Delaney’s dream job in social work and advocacy for the disabled often requires transporting clients or making home visits.

“It was interesting because I still was able to make arrangements with my (internship) supervisor for meetings, to travel to the Frankfort area with other staff, to visit facilities, to do investigations,” Delaney said. “I could do this.”

Her post-graduate job-hunting experience, though, finds her bumping up against sometimes curious requirements from social agencies, with one supervisor telling her that the agency had not yet decided if a driver’s license would be required for a position answering child protection service hot line calls.

Delaney is not the only one encountering employment obstacles. According to a 2004 National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey, only 35 percent of people with disabilities reported being employed full- or part- time, compared to 78 percent of those who do not have disabilities.

Delaney said she is learning to be a self-advocate, something that her public advocacy internships have honed. She mentioned that upon finishing college and grad school, she received encouragement from professors and supervisors, but never realized the difficulties she might face in pursuing her career.

“Here I (was), about to graduate facing the same barrier,” Delaney said. “Yet this time I’ve worked for not one, but four groups of attorneys. Wow, now you’re going to push some buttons at this point.”

Delaney acknowledges that while NKU and U of L disability services were, for the most part, great at accommodating special needs in the classroom, they fell short at creating career development options for students with disabilities.

Though NKU has 461 students currently registered with Disability Services and 28 graduates from summer and fall of 2006, Keley Smith-Keller, director of the Career and Development Center, said that within the last 18 months, students with disabilities have not sought career-counseling. “It hasn’t come up,” Smith-Keller said.

This disconnect between the disability services and the career counseling departments is typical, but connections can be fostered, according to Alan Muir, executive director of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities. The problem is one of the reasons the national organization, headquartered in Tennessee, formed.

“Career services is where all the employers will come to actually recruit students, but students with disabilities, historically, have not used career services either at all or in a very, very minor way,” Muir said. “If they’re not involved in career services, then they’re essentially invisible to these employers who come to recruit.”

COSD bridges the gap by creating a consortium consisting of higher institutions and employers, both in the public and private sector. The organization links each facet of the conglomerate in a way that appropriately responds to their needs. For example, potential employers might request guidance from universities on best practices for special-needs accommodations. Likewise, university career counselors, disability services staff and students might network with various employers to find desired career paths or even choice internships at blue-chip companies.

“Really, it’s bringing all these people together,” Muir said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of willingness on the part of employers to hire people with disabilities and to recruit young people with disabilities as college graduates, but there’s no way for them to really find them.”

Muir said Career Gateway is a great way for employers to connect with students who have disabilities.

“This is a great way for employers to be able to say, ‘OK, this is now a source for students with disabilities,'” Muir said.

COSD also offers sensitivity training, as well as networking opportunities at annual conferences hosted in the past by organizations such as Procter ‘ Gamble Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and NASA.

Roth said students registered with Disability Services often have more time demands, such as needing extra time to process information or to take tests. These demands make it more difficult for these students to participate in extra-curricular activities, including career development.

So far, there isn’t any formal plans to coordinate NKU’s Disability Services office with the Career Development Center.

However, the prospect of a stronger link between the two offices might be welcome news to current students registered with Disability Services, such as Linda Raabe, a sophomore in nursing.

“NKU could make announcements concerning careers for people who have disabilities and what opportunities are out there for us,” Raabe said.

Meanwhile, Delaney said she keeps plugging away, and focuses on the future by preparing for an upcoming job interview. The outcome may ultimately rest on how receptive her potential employer is to her special needs and accommodations – something a network such as COSD could shed light on as a resource.

“There has been progress, but there still has to be more progress,” Delaney said.