Providing work-integrated and experiential learning opportunities for students continues to be a widely discussed priority for higher education. To this end, the Career Kick Start Strategy that was recently announced by the Ontario government is a certainly a step in the right direction. The changing nature of work and the challenges faced by students as they transition into the workforce post-graduation has been well documented. In this discussion, however, I think it is important not to lose sight the unique challenges faced by students with disabilities in accessing these opportunities, and in gaining critical employment-related experience before they graduate.
I believe one of the greatest successes of post-secondary education in Canada has been the increased access for students with disabilities. Within the last twenty years, there has been a dramatic and welcome increase in the number of students with disabilities who have been able to attain certificates, diplomas, and degrees, which are crucial mechanisms to access quality employment.
At my own institution, we have seen annual double-digit increases in the number of students seeking accommodations for disabilities. However, this success does not always translate into employment. According to survey data, graduates with disabilities are still less likely to be employed than those without disabilities. Have employment outcomes for this group improved? Most certainly yes, but we need to do better.
The question then is: how can we better help students access the myriad of opportunities that will allow them to demonstrate competencies sought by employers? Here are some thoughts:
Universities and colleges should examine with a critical eye the overall accessibility of their experiential learning or work-integrated learning opportunities. This is certainly easier to assess in on-campus situations than in those that take students off-campus for local or global opportunities, where students with disabilities could experience barriers. At my own institution, we have invested in providing a personal support worker for a student so that they can participate fully in an international experiential learning trip. Otherwise, it might be extremely challenging for the student to engage fully in the learning experience.
Institutions should work with employers and partners to make them aware of the accessibility needs of students and of the requirements for ensuring more fully accessible opportunities at their companies or organizations. Ontario has made great strides under AODA legislation, and post-secondary institutions have been leaders in this work. However, there is much more work to do to change attitudes among employers, and universities can be at forefront of this effort.
We need to partner with agencies in our communities that are skilled in working with both students and employers to help students access the job market. There are a range of community resources such as LEADS here in London, Ontario, which is dedicated to working with both employers and students. We could then leverage this expertise in the development of more accessible work-integrated learning opportunities for students.
Finally, in working with our student governments and student organizations, we can ensure that events and extra-curricular activities remain accessible to students so they can gain the valuable skills and competencies offered through these critical campus partners.
I am heartened to see the conversation that is happening on university campuses with respect to experiential and work-integrated learning. Certainly without these opportunities, campus life would be less engaging for our students. More importantly, this programming helps to support students’ transition to careers, graduate programs, and gainful employment. As we continue this discussion, we can’t forget about the barriers students with disabilities face and the important role that universities have to play in improving access, just as they have played a key role in improving access to post-secondary education across Canada.