Second Sunday Series – Editor’s Note: This is the sixth of 12 columns on work and disability that will appear through the next 12 months — one on each second Sunday of the month, from September through August. Previous columns discussed self-advocating, career tips for family caretakers, testing limits as a worker with disabilities, the dilemma of revealing disabilities during job search, and overall concepts of disability in the workplace.
Do degrees and certificates make workers with disabilities more employable?
The full answer may not be knowable, given all the variables involved. The type of disability, for example, can impact employability in ways that are difficult to calculate.
Even so, studies do turn up on this subject, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) continues to gather data. And much of it is promising.
For example, a 2020 national survey funded by the Kessler Foundation and conducted by the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability shows that for recent college graduates, those with disabilities were as likely to hold jobs as their peers without disabilities.
Likewise, the BLS reported last year that the 2021 unemployment rate for disabled workers with a college degree was 6.8%, compared with 11% for those with only a high school degree.
It’s not difficult to counter this good news by comparing data for those without disabilities, or by counting those who have stopped looking for work. But acknowledging how far we have to go doesn’t erase the progress that’s been made.
And it doesn’t change the question: If you or your loved one has a disability, should you make the commitment for more education?
I’m going to give one of those blanket answers that needs to be adjusted for your personal circumstances: Yes. If you can afford the time and cost, and if you can find a way to manage the experience itself, then yes, do add to your education level.
To put my blanket answer into perspective, I need to clarify that I have never thrown myself onto the education bandwagon when it comes to employment. I know too many successful people without degrees to imagine that they are outliers.
But I also know the edge education can provide when the chips are down, as they so often are for individuals with disabilities. Starting with the experience itself, you will likely gain networking contacts, heightened self-confidence, and a better understanding of your abilities when you pursue additional training.
When you add on the knowledge you gain and the credential, as well as the potential for ongoing support from your alma mater, the benefits of further education might be outsized for disabled workers, as compared to those without disabilities.
But it’s not a one-size-fits all solution, and not all education programs are as inclusive as they’d like to claim. If you decide to go this route, here are some things to pay attention to in choosing your program.
Regardless of law or policy, this issue becomes real when you apply it to yourself. For your disability, whether that’s physical, cognitive, emotional or a combination, can your needs be accommodated? If not, look for a different program or a different place, because this will be important for your success.
Internships or work experiences
One of the key factors for employment success after training is the graduate’s ability to demonstrate work skills. For those with disabilities, it’s not only the employer who needs convincing — you need to know yourself that you can perform this work. Even if you have to extend your training to make it happen, don’t let yourself graduate until you’ve had at least two internships or work experiences.
What does this training program or institution offer its graduates to assist with employment? Placement statistics are nice, but they might favor graduates without disabilities. Rather than relying on a number, find out the specific services you’ll be able to access when you need a hand.
One final tip
Be in a hurry to start, but not to finish. That is, don’t delay the decision to enroll if you think this is the path for you. But once in, don’t push yourself to finish “on time” if it means stressing out or missing opportunities in your program. Just keep moving along and you’ll get there. I know — I took seven years to get my four-year degree and I’ve never regretted it.
Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.