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  • Making Career Services More Effective for College Students With Physical Disabilities

    August 01, 2021 | By David R. Parker, Larry Markle, and Carlos E. Taylor

    Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
    An illustration of a college graduate.

    TAGS: diversity and inclusion, students with disabilities, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2021

    Here in the United States, 2021 extends an unprecedented period of economic, social, and educational challenges driven by a worldwide pandemic and the fight for greater racial and gender equity. Our resilience as educators and employers allows us to respond with systemic efforts that can further open the door to equal opportunities for college students as they prepare for careers.1 Successful approaches to helping students graduate with work experience and greater self-determination are key examples. Recent college graduates with paid internship experience receive twice as many job offers as those without any work experience and nearly 25% more offers than those with unpaid work experience.2 Not all undergraduates, however, have the same access to these experiences. As noted in an article in the November 2020 NACE Journal, “Data collected through NACE’s annual student survey indicate that racial/ethnic minorities, women, and first-generation students are all underrepresented in paid internships. This door, figuratively speaking, to a first job post-graduation is shut.”3

    A Context for Equity and Access


    of individuals with disabilities (regardless of education level) were employed in 2019, compared to 66.3% of individuals without disabilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    College students with physical disabilities are similarly underrepresented when it comes to these opportunities. Job applicants with mobility, orthopedic, visual, and hearing impairments have “apparent” disabilities that can trigger employers’ unconscious stigma or concerns, particularly if they have limited experience providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.3% of individuals with disabilities (regardless of education levels) were employed in 2019 compared to 66.3% of individuals without disabilities.4 While a bachelor’s degree improves these outcomes, disability still creates a significant gap. According to the same source, only 28.2% of college graduates with disabilities were employed in 2019 compared to 75.5% of college graduates without a disability. Overall, students with physical disabilities graduate from high school and college at lower rates and have less work experience once they complete college compared to non-disabled peers.5, 6 These barriers matter because paid work experience is a powerful predictor of occupational success after college, particularly for young adults with disabilities.7, 8

    College internships have a particularly strong influence on employment success.9, 10 Researchers have found that internships provided undergraduates with physical disabilities networking and authentic job-related experiences that promoted their skill sets and self-confidence.11

    Practices that encourage students with physical disabilities to pursue work experience with accurate levels of self-awareness about their abilities, needs, and options create win-win scenarios for students and employers alike. Internships are one way to foster these outcomes.

    Career services professionals can play a significant role in helping students with physical disabilities develop greater self-awareness related to employment opportunities by promoting these opportunities. Unfortunately, research has noted that college students with physical disabilities underuse career services and graduate with minimal work experience, to their detriment.12 Partnerships between career services and disability services professionals can reverse these trends. This article highlights current challenges and successes that campus professionals report about these efforts.

    Campus Collaborations

    There are a variety of potential explanations for the underuse of career services by students with disabilities. One a is lack of time: Students with disabilities often require additional time to address daily living tasks, wait for accessible transportation, and obtain and use academic accommodations.

    Another barrier can be the location or inaccessibility of the buildings in which these services are provided.13 In addition, institutions of higher education tend to encourage students’ intense focus on academic success rather than the development of employment competencies.14 Finally, studies have also reported that many students with disabilities and their families erroneously believe a college degree by itself will be sufficient to obtain meaningful employment.15

    Campus leaders have been exploring solutions to these complex challenges for some time.16 An early leader in connecting career services, disability services, and employers to promote better outcomes for students with disabilities was the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.17 Under the leadership of Alan Muir, the Disability Careers Office was created and served as a national model in engaging students with disabilities in the career development process. Muir then founded Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, which sought to connect campus professionals with employers wanting to recruit college students with disabilities. Other universities have instituted similar collaborations between career and disability services, with the University of California at Berkeley, Ball State University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology being some examples.

    The literature continues to recommend this triad approach to partnership to promote students’ access to career exploration experiences.18 Career services are more effective when staff are knowledgeable about the unique needs of job seekers with disabilities. Partnerships between these two campus resources and employers can create the best option for helping students with disabilities obtain internships, which promote greater self-advocacy skills and a clearer understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses as an employee.19

    Four campus professionals from Indiana universities were interviewed for this article. Their perspectives shed further light on contemporary challenges and opportunities inherent in providing collaborative services. Gene Wells, senior director at the University of Evansville’s Center for Career Development, identifies a campus-wide “need for an institutional shift to a career development culture for all undergraduates. Academic programs must develop an intentional career development partnership with career centers to create a 100% ‘career ready’ culture on their campus for every student.”

    Wells agrees that students with disabilities chronically underuse the services his office provides. “For students with disabilities, this challenge is exacerbated by the considerable effort and attention needed to be academically successful. Rightfully so, their traditional support systems have a one-step-at-a-time approach to assisting them. Much of their efforts and focus rarely stray from their narrow academic path.”

    Wells and his colleagues work closely with the disability services staff. Both offices belong to the university’s Student Life division and are located near each other in the same accessible building. Drawing upon that partnership, Wells adds that, “every student with a disability who is receptive [is] referred to the career center and efforts are made to plug them into an individualized career development plan. We work with the NACE pyramid model of self-exploration, professional communication, testing/building their interests and executing a post-graduation outcomes plan(s).”

    Like Wells, Tehanee Ratwatte, associate director of specific student populations in the Career Development Center at Indiana University-Bloomington, underscored a number of potential barriers to students’ effective engagement with career services. Some of these are inherent in a system on her sprawling campus where many schools have their own career services units. Consequently, Ratwatte notes that “no two career services offices are alike with funding or staff and the ability for staff to have training and knowledge to support students with disabilities.” While the university’s disability services office is centrally located on several bus routes, “unless a student with disabilities has a class within the building that houses their career services office, and then also has the space in their class schedule to engage with that office during regular business hours, the possibility of that student having the opportunity to meet with their coach is not very high.”

    Ratwatte noted that schools and academic units could do more to encourage students with disabilities to disclose and request accommodations. She added, “While the stigma appears to be lower among students of the current generation, it is not something that is addressed openly.” Ratwatte identified a final barrier that potential employers should consider. “Recruitment processes are not always disability friendly. From application platforms that are not configured to support persons with disabilities, to interview processes that are not conducive, to recruiting and HR staff who might not necessarily be aware of the many ways a person with disabilities could be supported to achieve their deliverables, students with disabilities are leaving wonderful opportunities on the table because they are not aware of or [do not] feel supported in order to pursue an opportunity.”

    Ronda Stone, manager of disability resources at the University of Southern Indiana, works with the university’s career services office to help students anticipate how their disability might affect the application and hiring process for internships and post-graduation positions. Stone, whose expertise is enhanced by the fact that she has a hearing impairment, offered these examples: “Help [students] learn how to state what is needed to be able to shine their best light in an interview. Also, students need to learn to plan ahead for barriers. Can career services help the student get an itinerary for the interview day? Is there going to be a tour that may require a lot of walking? Is there going to be a speaker phone interview—[this] happened to me [and] I couldn’t understand some of the speakers in the room and had to disclose my disability and asked if all questions could be filtered through one person.” Stone ended by stressing, “It is important that individuals can state not just the problem or barrier but can suggest solutions. I’m not sure this falls under career services, but it is important in any work setting.”

    Ryan McCombs, director of the Disability Access Center at Purdue University Fort Wayne, noted a strong need for more data, a concern likely shared by many campus professionals. “It is difficult for our campus to track this data, as we do not have a tracking option in place specific to students with disabilities. We struggle with having good statistics on this population after graduation.” While intent on providing collaborative services that respond to students’ needs, McCombs noted that “we also struggle with getting students engaged in the collaborative programming initiatives between the Career Development Center and the Disability Access Center. We do not get a lot of requests from students… with questions related to the intersection of employment and disability.” With an eye to the future, McCombs added that his office is collaborating with the career services office “to provide cross training for staff on how to provide accessible materials and creating inclusive environments for students with disabilities in their spaces. We are also having Career Development Center staff come to our space to strategically meet the needs of our students with disabilities in a space they feel comfortable in. We are planning future cross trainings as well to make sure this population and all of the campus has resources they need as they move from the postsecondary environment into their careers.”

    These higher education professionals are deeply engaged in collaborative efforts focused on disability and employment issues. They demonstrate their own self-determination by finding resources and building coalitions within their respective campus cultures to make this work more relevant and accessible to students with disabilities.

    Making Career Assessments More Meaningful

    All students can prepare for meaningful careers more effectively with opportunities that strengthen their self-determination—“the ability to identify and achieve goals based on a foundation of knowing and valuing oneself.”20 Self-determination theory depicts an ongoing interplay between the external world and one’s inner sense of self as we experience outcomes and learn how to make better choices as a result.21 Importantly, research has shown that post-school employment success is linked to the ability to take control and make conscious decisions and that positive self-esteem and self-confidence are particularly important in females with disabilities as they move into the workforce.22

    As college students make meaning from positive and negative efforts to reach their goals, they can strengthen the internal compass that guides them toward successful goal attainment. Beyond these universal learning cycles, students with physical disabilities often grapple with unique concerns about the career path ahead, including whether and how their disability might affect them in the workplace, whether others will think less of their capabilities because of their disability, and whether there will be peers or role models with similar disabilities. Studies report that students often feel isolated in their college setting without ready access to professionals who seem to understand these questions or demonstrate a capacity to help answer them.23

    Career assessments can promote students’ self-determination by instilling a deeper understanding of how their personality and innate interests align with various careers and occupational settings. In summer 2020, the authors adapted a career assessment process to meet the needs of 13 interns in the Gregory S. Fehribach Center’s program.24 This process is continuing in summer 2021. The pilot process consisted of two one-hour sessions, both conducted virtually due to the pandemic. Interns submitted a brief intake form prior to their first session. Their responses, which included questions they wanted answered through the assessments, were discussed during the first session, before they completed the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) and the Strong Interest Inventory (Strong).

    A personalized report was created for each intern. This included an executive summary, the computer-generated results of the intern’s MBTI and Strong assessments, and a report from the O*NET federal website ( that provides detailed information about a job highly recommended in their assessment data that matched an area of interest. The interns were scheduled for a follow-up meeting about a week after taking the assessment and invited to ask a parent, partner, or close friend to join the second session if they wished. Interns were then sent an electronic copy and printed copy prior to that meeting. In the second session, the questions the intern had identified on the intake form were reviewed; assessment results were discussed in response to those questions in a manner that encouraged conversation. Recommendations and resources were then reviewed before a final discussion about suggested next steps the intern might take to act on information in the report.

    It was important to assess the accessibility of this process for interns with disabilities:

    • Multiple methods of contacting intake staff for questions and scheduling were provided. While contacting intake staff via telephone was a viable option for some, interns without the ability to speak or who were deaf or hard of hearing were unable to use such forms of communication. A secondary means of communication with intake staff, such as email, provided an alternative way for these interns to ask questions and schedule appointments.
    • It was also important to consider the accessibility of the intake forms. Some interns using assistive technologies, such as screen readers, experienced difficulty with filling out these forms as PDFs. They were converted to the Microsoft Word format to provide greater accessibility for these interns.
    • Next, for some interns, two-hour sessions were scheduled rather than one-hour sessions; this provided the interns with additional time to read assessment items and use assistive technology.
    • Finally, staff learned how to help the interns activate the screen reader-friendly versions of both assessment instruments and use the virtual platform’s chat box as an alternate way to communicate during live meetings.

    In addition to these accommodations, several adaptations were made to the standard protocol for conducting career evaluations with other individuals. These include the following.

    New intake questions: The intake form asks for the individual’s demographic data; a summary of their work history; relevant academic information, e.g., college plans or degrees, GPA, major/minor; perceived strengths and weaknesses; and the top three questions the individual hopes a career assessment could help answer. These questions were added:

    • In order to reach your career goals, what are the most important skills and knowledge you hope to strengthen as you participate in the Gregory S. Fehribach Center’s internship program?
    • If you have no (or limited) work experience thus far, why is that?
    • What (if any) accommodations do you think might be helpful to you in a workplace setting?

    Debriefing conversations related to self-determination: Seven of the 13 interns in summer 2020 chose to have someone, typically a family member, join them during the second session. The inclusion of these additional participants enriched the holistic nature of the debriefing sessions, creating greater informality and adding meaningful context about the interns’ efforts to become more self-determined during high school and college. These discussions included questions and observations related to the intern’s lived experiences with disabilities and often focused on the strengths the intern had related to goal-setting, persistence, and problem solving that could help them achieve continued success on the job.

    Reframing disability as a potential asset: Debriefing often involved conversations about how the intern could use their disability as an asset to bring unique expertise to their career. A Latina intern with a visual impairment who had just graduated with a degree in health sciences, for example, received information about networking with organizations serving blind youth and the Hispanic community in central Indiana. A senior with a spinal cord injury who was applying to physician assistant graduate programs was given information about professional organizations for health care providers with disabilities. Insights from interns’ self-determination were also used to help them identify strengths they could share about themselves during job interviews.

    Disability-related resources:Whenever possible, the intern’s report included links to relevant articles or websites. These sources identified successful adults in that individual’s career field who had disabilities or organizations that provide information about accommodations or role models related to their disability and career area. Interns expressed strong interest in these resources, often commenting that it was the first time they had been exposed to this type of information.

    Disclosure and assessments

    Federal disability legislation prohibits colleges and universities from requiring students to disclose disability information due to concerns about potential discrimination. Students can be invited to voluntarily share this information in confidence, however, when it is relevant to their needs. Unlike a person with a non-apparent disability, such as dyslexia or anxiety, students with physical disabilities usually need to consider how to discuss their disability rather than whether they should do so.

    When providing career assessments that can address a student’s disability-related questions or concerns, career services professionals are encouraged to proactively seek guidance from disability services colleagues and general counsel and/or the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADA-AA) compliance office and to consider these recommendations:

    • Craft language that invites voluntary disclosure if a student wishes to discuss disability-related issues. Clearly describe how this information will remain confidential.
    • Consider seeking assistance from a disability services colleague to help review and discuss findings for a student with a physical disability. Alternatively, consider hiring or training a career services staff member so that they have disability-related knowledge to apply to these assessments.25
    • Follow established procedures to determine if students would like to invite a family member or someone else to join them in the debriefing session. With students’ informed consent, this option is recommended given the history family members understand and the ongoing support they often provide to bolster the student’s self-determination.26

    Recommendations for Career Services and Employers

    In his recent article about inclusive leadership, Tierney Bates offered thoughtful guidance on strategies that organizations can use to fight discrimination by transforming their own “cultural landscape and homogenous culture.”27 He added, “This is an opportunity for organizations to assess their best practices, look intrinsically for growth, and build a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within the work environment. In an evolving workforce and innovative society, a culture or work environment can no longer remain homogenous. Senior leaders should look to move beyond diversity to inclusion.”28

    In that spirit, campus professionals are encouraged to continue fostering stronger career development practices for students from marginalized groups, such as those with physical disabilities. Similarly, employers are encouraged to continue recruiting otherwise-qualified college students with physical disabilities for internships and jobs, given the unique skill set, perspective, and self-determination these individuals often bring to the table.

    The literature and emerging practice at the Gregory S. Fehribach Center combine to inform realistic approaches that can achieve meaningful outcomes:

    • Students with physical disabilities often lag behind their peers without disabilities in having resume-boosting experiences prior to and during college. Career services professionals should be proactive in creating career development opportunities for students with disabilities.
    • If disability services offers new student or orientation programs, career services should be on the agenda to introduce students with physical disabilities to the many resources available to all students. The earlier students with disabilities are connected with these resources, the higher the likelihood that they will have the experiences needed for equitable employment after graduation.
    • Be aware of the many barriers to employment that students with disabilities face, such as disability disclosure, housing, transportation, attendant care, lack of physical and technological accessibility, and economic disincentives. While expertise in these matters is beyond the purview of career services, staff should be able to make referrals to campus or community services and resources that can assist.
    • Identify a staff member in career services to receive specialized training in best practices in serving students with disabilities. This staff member could train their colleagues so that all career services professionals could better serve students with disabilities.
    • Seek out local, state, and national programs that provide internship opportunities for students with disabilities. Examples include the Workforce Recruitment Program (, Entry Point (, Lime Connect (, and the NextGen Leaders Initiative (
    • Provide programming that would encourage students with disabilities to have greater interaction with career services. Panel discussions that include professionals with disabilities and employers that have hired graduates with disabilities can give students real-world examples of individuals with similar disabilities who have successfully transitioned to professional employment.
    • Reach out to local employers to have discussions about the challenges students with disabilities experience when seeking work after graduation. Perhaps partnerships can be created to provide mentoring or internship opportunities. Old National Bank and its Achieve Ability program ( is an example of an employer that has collaborated with colleges to provide these types of meaningful opportunities.
    • Partner with disability services colleagues for semester or yearly cross training so both offices can be familiar with new developments and opportunities.
    • Emphasize the benefits of not only graduating your students with physical disabilities, but equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to flourish in meaningful careers once they graduate. Consider working with your institution’s retention services or alumni office to develop a data-tracking system to follow these graduates and their employment outcomes.
    • Career services professionals and employers need specific skills and knowledge about the impact of physical disabilities on a student or applicant that considers what the applicant can do with reasonable accommodations within the context of the ADA-AA. This knowledge can then help the career services professional or employer put the focus on potential assets the disabled person might bring to a workplace.
    • In addition to the career-related expertise available, making the career services office as accessible and welcoming as possible to students with disabilities will provide them additional opportunities to learn and practice self-advocacy skills related to employment issues.

    Career development is an ongoing process. Students are unlikely to derive many benefits if they only attend a resume workshop or a career fair during their final year. Disability services professionals and families can play an important role in supporting students’ ongoing engagement with career services.


    1 Solomon, S. (November 2020). Building dynamic resiliency, wellness, and career success. NACE Journal. Retrieved from

    2 Collins, M. (2020, November). Open the door: Disparities in paid internships. NACE Journal, 81(2), 18-22.

    3 Collins (2020).

    4 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Persons with disabilities: Labor force characteristics news release. Retrieved from

    5 Mazzotti, V.L., Rowe, D.A., Sinclair, J., Poppen, M., Woods, W.E., & Shearer, M.L. (2016). Predictors of post-school success: A systemic review of NLTS2 secondary analyses. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals,39(4), 196-215.

    6 Pillette, K. (2019). College students with disabilities and employment: Career development needs and models of support. NCCSD Research Brief, 2(3). Huntersville, NC: National Center for College Students with Disabilities, Association on Higher Education and Disability.

    7 Stodden, R.A., Dowrick, P.W., Anderson, J., Heyer, K., & Acosta, J. (2005). Postsecondary and education across the USA: Experiences of adults with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 22, 49-64.

    8 Vilorio, D. (2016, March). “Education matters,” Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2016,

    9 Madaus, J. (2006). Improving transition to career for college students with learning disabilities: Suggestions from graduates. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(1), 85-93.

    10 Wessel, R.D., Jones, D.L., Blanch, C.L., & Markle, L. (2015). Pre-enrollment considerations of undergraduate wheelchair users and their post-enrollment transitions. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 28(1), 57-71.

    11 DiYenno, C., Mulvihill, T., Wessel, R.D., & Markle, L. (2019). Experience of students with physical disabilities in a summer internship program. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 32(2), 147-157.

    12 Pillette (2019).

    13 Parker, D.R., & Markle, L. (2021, February). Ready, willing, but still underemployed: Why college graduates with physical disabilities struggle to launch careers. NACE Journal, 81(3), 42-52.

    14 Oswald, G.R., Huber, M.J., & Bonza, A. (2015). Effective job-seeking preparation and employment services for college students with disabilities. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 28, 375-382.

    15 Greenberg, R.M., Muir, A., & Gilreath, C. (Fall 2003).Career support for students with disabilities. NACE Journal, 64(1), 15-18.

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

    17 Greenberg et al. (2003).

    18 McAward, S.M. (2015). Navigating the career development of students with disabilities: A collaborative approach. NASPA.

    19 Mamun, A.A., Carter, E.W., Fraker, T.M., & Timmins, L.L. (2018). Impact of early work experiences on subsequent paid employment for young adults with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 41(4), 212-222.

    20 Field, S., & Hoffman, A. (1994). Development of a model for self-determination. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 17, 164.

    21 Parker, D.R., & Boutelle, K. (2009). Executive function coaching for college students with
    LD and ADHD: A new approach for fostering self-determination. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 24(4), 204-215.

    22 DiYenno et al. (2019).

    23 Pillette (2019).

    24 The Gregory S. Fehribach Center at Eskenazi Health (Indianapolis) was created to work with college students with physical disabilities, campus professionals, and employers to close many of the gaps reported in the literature. The Fehribach Center offers eight-week internships in the summer, with limited opportunities also available in the fall and spring. These are paid, full-time internships in fields related to the student’s major, with housing and transportation assistance offered when needed.

    25 Greenberg et al. (2003).

    26 Burgstahler (2001).

    27 Bates, T. (2020, November). Inclusive leadership: 10 steps to creating an inclusive workplace. NACE Journal, 81(2), 23.

    28 Bates, T. (2020, November). 24.

    David R. Parker, Ph.D.David R. Parker, Ph.D., is a postsecondary disability specialist and ADD/life coach at CRG (Children’s Resource Group) in Indianapolis, Indiana. Previously, he served as director of a private school for students with dyslexia, administrator of LD/ADHD programs at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and University of Connecticut, and program manager of a National Science Foundation STEM/UDI grant project at Washington University in St. Louis. He has conducted training on best practices for college students with ADHD, LD, and ASD in Italy, Japan, Austria, and Kuwait. Dr. Parker is also the research coordinator for the Gregory S. Fehribach Center. In this role, he coordinates partnerships between center staff and members of its national research advisory board to study the impact of paid internships on the career outcomes of college students with physical disabilities.

    Larry MarkleLarry Markle is the director of the Gregory S. Fehribach Center at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis, a program that provides college students with physical disabilities with paid internships in fields related to their major and professional development training to improve employment outcomes. Prior to that, Markle was the director of disability services at Ball State University for 13 years. During his tenure, Ball State was recognized nationally as a leader in physical accessibility for students with disabilities. A 2019 recipient of the Association on Higher Education and Disability’s Meritorious Contribution Award, Markle has co-authored multiple articles on disability and higher education that have been published in peer reviewed journals and presented at dozens of regional and national conferences. He can be reached by email at

    Carlos E. TaylorCarlos E. Taylor is the program manager at the Gregory S. Fehribach Center at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis. He works to provide meaningful paid internship opportunities for college students with physical disabilities. Prior to joining the Fehribach Center, Taylor worked as the adaptive computer technology specialist at Ball State University, where he provided assistive technology solutions to students, staff, and faculty. He has presented to numerous groups, businesses, and organizations on various topics pertaining to accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Taylor earned both a bachelor’s degree in business information technology and a Master of Science degree in information and communication sciences from Ball State University. He can be reached at