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Opportunity gap for students with disabilities begins early and can limit lifetime career possibilities

A new report looks at outcomes for new graduates with disabilities. Advocates of disability rights say this data is not new or surprising.

BY EMILY BARON CADLOFF | SEP 08 2021

A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is reiterating what people with disabilities have been saying for years: job opportunities are slim, and the opportunity gap between disabled students and their peers that starts immediately after graduation is growing too large.

It’s perhaps not surprising information, says Ken Chatoor, senior researcher at HEQCO and author of the study, but it is a “sobering” reminder.

The report looked at data from postsecondary students in Ontario, using two self-reported data sets from 2016 Statistics Canada surveys. Mr. Chatoor studied the credentials attained by students with disabilities at postsecondary institutions, the students’ experiences at their college or university, and the labour market outcomes after graduation.

He found that disabled students were less likely to attend postsecondary school, and less likely to attain higher degrees. When new graduates hit the job market, they will have a more difficult time finding a job and will be less satisfied with their salary and benefits than their non-disabled peers.

The report also found a 17 per cent difference in jobs with paid sick leave and a nine per cent difference in jobs with retirement savings between recent graduates with disabilities and those without. Most importantly, 25 per cent of respondents said they received no benefits at their jobs compared with 18 per cent of their non-disabled peers.

“It creates this massive gap in lifetime earnings, that has huge implications for things like retirement, for example,” Mr. Chatoor says. “When you compound the lower income over time with the fact that individuals with disabilities are less likely to be in jobs that have RRSPs and pensions, that adds up.”

‘I am living the gap right now’

Those results are familiar to Maggie Lyons-MacFarlane, the New Brunswick director and chair of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS).

Despite earning a master of art in education, “I actually am living the gap right now, says Mx. Lyons-MacFarlane. They said that in the four years they have been out of school, they’ve applied for close to 1,500 jobs, netting just six interviews.

One possible reason for that, says Frank Smith, national coordinator of NEADS, is that students with disabilities report having less relevant work experience. To compensate, some students, like Mx. Lyons-MacFarlane, stay in school to get advanced degrees to compete in the job market.

The report also breaks down its findings into type of disability. Only 56 per cent of respondents with a physical disability found paid work after graduation, compared with 79 per cent of respondents with a visual disability. Mr. Chatoor says that specificity was an attempt to reflect the diversity within disabilities, to ensure that the data “reflects the lived experiences of people with all of those diverse types of experiences to make sure that we can develop more consistent and informed policy, because the meanings are different.”

Mx. Lyons-MacFarlane says those types of distinctions are well-meaning, but often unnecessary. They prefer to think of disability in terms of visible versus invisible, in part as a way to simplify things for everyone involved. “As soon as [the general public] see the stratification, [they think] ‘is it worth the time’?” Mx. Lyons-MacFarlane explains. “Invisible disabilities could then encompass those learning disabilities, mental health or autism, which is its own entity. Any sort of episodic disability.”

Mx. Lyons-MacFarlane also argues this could make the hiring process smoother for people with disabilities. Rather than detailing specific diagnoses and self-identifying with specific descriptors, people could just describe the accommodations they need.

Flawed baselines

According to Tanya Titchkosky, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toronto, the whole data set should be revamped. She says she’s frustrated with reports like this one, and previous iterations, that are based on flawed baselines of what “normal functioning” and “disabled functioning” look like. “The information itself is based on a really degrading, derogatory, unexamined conception of disability,” Dr. Titchkosky explains. She argues that while research like this is often well meaning, it can reinforce stereotypes and exclusionary policies, because the solutions proposed are still tailored to individual people, rather than a change in systemic or societal structures.

“They start with a conception of disability as an inability to function normally for a human being, and then they locate that in parts of the body. And then they measure that lack of functionality,” Dr. Titchkosky says. “That makes disability into a medical or health issue, and takes it away from our social relations … we put it into the individual as a way to not consider ‘well, what are we doing within the classroom or on the street or in the transportation system? [What are we doing that] makes people with impairments disabled?’”

So what to do with these findings? Mr. Chatoor has a variety of recommendations in the report. Most important, he says, is that schools look critically at their own programs, and root out the gaps within. “How do we know what’s working and what’s working best? I think this sector would really benefit from knowing that.”

Mr. Chatoor also recommends implementing Universal Design in Learning — a learning framework that assumes barriers to activities are inherent in the environment and works to proactively overcome them — in developing course materials. Mx. Lyons-MacFarlane agrees that UDL should be practiced widely, even out of classroom. “It will serve to regulate job markets, to open doors … to allow people who are neurodivergent to come across as very capable.” However, Dr. Titchkosky doesn’t recommend using this research at all, arguing that any solution it proposes stems from a flawed premise.

The report adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has also significantly affected postsecondary students and institutions, and it’s not yet clear what the long-term impacts might be for students with disabilities. It notes there is a “particular urgency” in data collection that will inform future policy decisions.

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