Holly Tuke, 23, a recent graduate who is registered as blind, went to her university careers service in her second year to get advice on finding a job. They recommended she apply for work as a bus driver – work she couldn’t do. “It was frustrating because they clearly didn’t understand my disability,” she says. “And because of that I never went back to ask for help again.”
Disabled students face various challenges when they graduate, whether it’s working out whether to disclose a disability to potential employers, considering when and how to ask for adjustments during a job application process, navigating psychometric tests, tackling prejudice and stigma, or dealing with unprepared employers.
But rather than getting help to navigate these challenges, many disabled students experience a sudden drop-off in support during the time between graduating and entering the workplace.
It’s a crucial transition and the lack of support can have a knock-on effect. Research from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) has shown graduates with disabilities are less likely to be in full-time employment or on a permanent contract six months after graduating, and more likely to work part-time or pursue further study.
Rachel Salter, 29, has multiple complex health issues. Two years ago, she graduated from Kingston University and St George’s University with a first as a paediatric associate practitioner. She says in her experience there is “definitely a very big gap” in support for disabled students when they graduate. Many are being “sent out there in the dark”, she says. Salter is now in work and loves her job, but faced a year-long struggle to educate unprepared colleagues about her disabilities. “It knocked my confidence,” she says.
Becky Dann, 25, studied photography at the University for the Creative Arts and uses a wheelchair. She was told that to get ahead in photography she would have to start with an entry level position as a runner. But when she told university staff she was unable to work in the role because of her disability, no one knew of any alternatives. “It was just a weird vibe I got that after uni there wasn’t really anything I could do,” she says. “There wasn’t much education from my tutors on where disabled people go after university so I was a bit scared.”
Dann, who now works at disability-led arts organisation Shape Arts, had already been turned down for part-time jobs while studying. “I applied for a job in a local art gallery and didn’t tell them I was disabled,” she says. “When I got to the interview I could instantly see shock on the interviewer’s face and felt they didn’t want to give me the time of day. They later told me they thought the job would be too challenging for me with my disability, but they didn’t know me so they didn’t know that. That really knocked me back and I didn’t apply for a job again for a while afterwards.”
According to research, those with a social communication or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) condition are least likely to be in full-time employment and most likely to be unemployed after graduating.
Clara Martins de Barros, who works in clinical research and is autistic, says people with ASD have different body language and needs, and this can be misunderstood for lack of interest or poor social skills during the application process.
So how can we bridge the gap in support for disabled students as they navigate these challenges? Tabassum Ahmad, founder and managing director of EmployAbility, a not-for-profit set up to help students and graduates with disabilities, says there isn’t always a crossover between a university’s disability service and its careers service.
Tuke, who now works at a university, says some university careers services offer tailored support for disabled students about to graduate – but not all. She thinks some could do more to talk through the process of disclosing a disability, and also advise students on how to talk to an employer about support they’ll likely need.
At a policy level, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) need to join up to bridge the gap, says Angela Matthews, head of policy and advice at the Business Disability Forum, a non-profit membership organisation that helps businesses to employ disabled people.
Access to Work (ATW), which provides funding and support for disabled people when at work, is owned by DWP, and Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is based within the DfE. They’re different in terms of funding, language used and how individuals are assessed for support, Matthews explains. “So these policy areas [need to be] more joined up to address the barriers unique to that gap between education and employment. Ultimately, more attention at both policy and university level is needed … otherwise we’re wasting talent and potentially fuelling the disability employment gap.”
Employers must also be better prepared. YouGov research has shown half of businesses believe it’s easier to recruit a non-disabled person over a disabled person. To tackle this, disability employment charity Scope have teamed up with Virgin Media to create the #WorkWithMe campaign, which is a call to action for businesses to create inclusive workplaces. “Disabled graduates can face negative attitudes and inflexible practices when getting into and staying in work,” Jess Leigh, policy and campaigns manager at Scope, says. “Becoming an inclusive employer needs to be a priority for all businesses.”
Ahmad emphasises that employing disabled graduates is not about lowering the bar. “If employers want the best talent they have to look at the widest pool available to them,” she says.
For Tuke, unhelpful careers advice meant she wasn’t as prepared to enter the workplace as she could have been. However she didn’t let it defeat her and six months later she found work at her university. “A lot of the time having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do the job,” she says. “You might just need some adjustments.”