May02,2012

Disability Employment Policy: What Are We Missing?

By Guest Blogger Paul Hippolitus, Director, Disabled Students’ Program, Equity & Inclusion, University of California, Berkeley

Watch a YouTube video of Paul Hippolitus discussing UC Berkeley’s “Professional Development and Disability” course

As a longtime advocate and professional working in support of the employment of people with disabilities, I was very excited to recently report for work at the University of California, Berkeley — to have the privilege of assisting the University’s students with disabilities with both their education and career ambitions.  UC Berkeley has some of the “best and brightest” of our young people with disabilities, so helping them to achieve their career goals seemed to me to be the easiest assignment I would ever have.

During my first few weeks at Berkeley, I embarked on a quest to ask every student with a disability I met the question, “What’s your career goal?” I couldn’t wait to hear about their lofty goals, serious plans and impressive ambitions.

Much to my chagrin, the response I most often got (about 99 percent of the time) was the student casting their eyes to the ground and saying, ”I’m not sure, I guess I’ll go on to graduate schools; or, law school; or medical school.”

I was shocked. Our “best and brightest” were just as perplexed about their career potential as most people with disabilities.

It took several months before these students trusted me enough to tell me what they were really thinking when I had asked them my question. They candidly told me that they felt they had to stay in school as long as possible because they were afraid that when their school years ended, they would be forced to spend the rest of their lives at home, on disability benefits, watching TV, because they were sure no one would hire them.

Here I was among the highest achieving of our young people with disabilities, and they lacked a basic self-confidence about what they had to offer as productive workers. It was then I began to realize, if these students lacked self-confidence about their employment worth, surely most of our young people with disabilities must likewise doubt their employment potential.

Happily, it didn’t take much of an effort to begin to turn that lack of self-confidence around. All it took was me urging them to believe in themselves, to appreciate what they had to offer the world and to begin to teach them the knowledge they needed to get going.

Still, I wondered, why this was my experience, at this high level of academic achievement? Well, it starts with the parents, teachers, family and friends asking our young people with disabilities that empowering question, “What do you want to be when you grown-up?” While this vital question is regularly asked of our nondisabled youth, it’s too often avoided when talking with our young people with disabilities.

What kind of an impact or signal does this failure to ask such a question send to our youth with disabilities? I asked them and what they told me was it teaches them that parents, teachers, family and friends don’t expected them to work because of their disability.

So, nurturing these students’ self-confidence became my first task.  And it started by simply showing them there was at least one person who could see their employment potential.

Next, I began a paid work internship program for our students. After all, how can they compete for jobs upon graduation if they don’t keep-up with the nondisabled students who were participating in summer jobs and internships along the way?

Our new internship program was just the medicine they needed to feed their new found self-confidence. Working with the State of California Department of Rehabilitation, we were able to place many of our students with disabilities in internship or summer paid work experiences. This not only boosted the students’ self-confidence about their employment potential, it also gave them the added building blocks they needed to more successfully compete for jobs and careers upon graduation.

Our quest for summer jobs and internships created a new “sense of possibility” among our students and changed the whole campus climate. Our students began encouraging each other to seek internships. An excitement began to build around each student’s search. The students began to help each other with their internship possibilities by freely sharing internship placement information and experiences.

Still, as we move forward, one more step was clearly needed. And, it turned out to be the most important one.

After self-confidence and work experiences or paid internships, it was clear to me that there was a serious gap in the students’ knowledge about the world of work. Having never been there or educated about what the world of work expects of them, they were both unsure and ill prepared for the transition. So, this was one more piece of the puzzle needed before our program would become complete. This next component of our program was a response to the reality that the world of work is, quite literally, a new and unknown world to the uninitiated. So, if you have never experienced the workplace (internships help, but not completely) how can you expected to know the intricacies of work place culture, values and “rules of the road”, unless someone teaches you them?  If you’re not informed on these subjects, you’re more likely to make critical mistakes which can keep you from getting a job, much less sustaining a career. Since school is a great place to teach new knowledge, I started a course called, “Professional Development and Disability”. This course was designed to document and teach our students this important information.

There are numerous other school based efforts designed to teach students with disabilities information about the world of work. However, as valuable as they are, they’re rarely complete. Most often, they teach skills around “how to” look for work, prepare a resume and perform in that all important interview.  These are important skills; however, real success in getting and holding a job is knowing and understanding the deeper subtleties of the work place.

Our “Professional Development and Disability” course goes into depth on these additional considerations. It challenges the students to conceptualize how to best present themselves and their disabilities; it helps them to understand how to disarm and education employers and co-workers about their disabilities; to better understand workplace culture and values; to develop effective work place habits and practices; and to learn how to navigate disability employment considerations (accommodations, disincentives, laws and related emotional considerations).

The “Professional Development and Disability” course has helped our students; however, I am convinced that it can likewise help other young people with disabilities who are still in school, people who have recently acquired disabilities and those individuals with disabilities who have never worked before and are now considering entering the workforce.

Remember, such a course of instruction is but one of several important components needed to help make employment possible. Even so, it may be the most over looked one in our disability employment policy.

For the most part, over the years, disability employment policy has overlooked the idea of “product development”. We ask employers to hire, but we don’t spend enough time teaching applicants with disabilities how to “market” themselves effectively. One without the other is an incomplete equation.

In the words of our students in this course, “the best form of disability advocacy is your career”.

For more information:

Paul Hippolitus is the Director of the Disabled Students’ Program at the University of California, Berkeley, which was recently named one of the top five universities serving students with disabilities in the United States. The Disabled Students’ Program provides legally mandated classroom accommodations to over 1,200 students with disabilities and was one of the first of its kind in the country. Paul also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and the World Institute for Disability.

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