Ottawa universities, colleges working to boost employment levels of graduates with disabilities

Carleton University

In more than 30 years as an employee at Carleton University, Larry McCloskey has seen the percentage of students with disabilities steadily rise.

About 3,000 people studying at Carleton today have some form of physical or mental disability, he says, roughly one-tenth of the total enrolment. More importantly, he adds, their seven-year graduation rate of 72 per cent has jumped 20 points in the last two decades and is now about two percentage points higher than that of the overall student population.

Yet for all that, McCloskey says, graduates with disabilities are still more than twice as likely to end up unemployed or underemployed after their campus days are over ​– a figure that hasn’t budged in decades.

“People go from parity here to falling off the cliff,” says the director of Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre for students with disabilities. “In 20 years, we’ve come up 20 per cent on graduation rate and that doesn’t change the needle on employment? That’s hugely concerning.”

Those grads also tend to slightly outperform the general population when it comes to metrics such as workplace absenteeism, he adds.

"(Employers) just assume people with disabilities in the workplace are worse employees."

“It surprised people who just assumed that our students with disabilities were far worse students,” McCloskey says. “And by extension, people just assume people with disabilities in the workplace are worse employees, and therefore that explains the unemployment rate.”

Now, McCloskey and his counterparts at the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College and La Cite are banding together to launch a new program aimed to boosting the employment prospects of those students, whom he says continue to feel the sting of discrimination when they enter the workforce based on largely unfounded stereotypes.

The brainchild of the Paul Menton Centre and Carleton’s READ (Research, Education, Accessibility and Design) Initiative, The David C. Onley Initiative for Employment and Enterprise Development is a two-year, $5-million pilot project funded by Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. It’s part of Education City, an effort to encourage more collaboration among the four post-secondary institutions in Ottawa.

McCloskey says its main objectives are essentially twofold: To change the general public’s attitudes toward graduates with disabilities, and to give students entering the workforce the confidence they need to seize opportunities when they arise.

“We’re going to try to move the needle, make sort of a cultural change with the four post-secondary institutions in Ottawa,” he says.

The program’s key planks include a public relations campaign that will address the barriers to employment disabled graduates face and highlight the benefits of bringing people with disabilities on as workers.

Former Ontario lieutenant governor David C. Onley, a polio survivor and longtime advocate of disability rights, will help promote the campaign.

“Lack of employment continues to be one of the greatest barriers to full equality faced by persons with disabilities,” Onley said Monday during an event to launch the initiative at Carleton University.

The four Ottawa schools will work together on new research into why students with disabilities aren’t landing jobs and ways to help future grads develop entrepreneurial skills.

They’ll also be hiring new staff to help ensure that facilities such as the Paul Menton Centre and career centres at all four institutions are on the same page when it comes to preparing students for the world of work.

McCloskey says students with disabilities are consistently underrepresented in fields such science, engineering and math, often because they lack confidence in their ability to succeed in those careers.

Getting students with disabilities to believe in themselves is the key, he says.

While post-secondary institutions put a lot of effort into accommodating those who face such challenges on campus, McCloskey says, they don’t do a good enough job of preparing students for life after the classroom by helping them develop the skills and self-assurance they need to be their own advocates.

“When you’re in the workplace, you have to actually to some extent switch to being able to convince the employer that ‘I can do this job – that I’m going to be able to address your bottom line better than anyone else.’ Mostly what we want to do is make our students more competitive.”

Two of the new employees will be dedicated to helping students on the autism spectrum find employment, McCloskey says, noting more than 100 people with autism are now enrolled at Carleton.

“I’m not sure we had any just over 10 years ago, so this is a whole new challenge,” he says.

He also suggests the program will involve forging partnerships with potential future employers and agencies such as the Employers Accessibility Resource Network.

Ultimately, he says, the schools want to create a blueprint that is “scalable” and “transferrable” to educational institutions across the country.  

“We’re going to try to create a model that fits other places once it’s been tried here,” McCloskey says. “A lot of things have been tried (in the past) and they haven’t been successful, so we ought to be really strategic about what we do.”