Exploring Pathways to Career Success for Students with Disabilities

White glass indoor bridge leading up to a doorway opening in a white wall

Earlier this month, I finished my term as the Chair of the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (H-B) Board of Trustees. Volunteering at this outstanding organization has taught me so much about care for kids with disabilities, their goals and aspirations for the future and — perhaps most importantly — the resilience of the families who rely on H-B for a wide array of services and supports. During my years of service, I have been humbled by their endless courage and strength.

When I met recently with members of the Family Advisory Council to seek their input on the hospital’s 2016–2017 priorities, “transitions” emerged as a dominant theme. Specifically, clients and families expressed concerns about how kids with disabilities transition out of the pediatric health-care system into adult services, and out of secondary school to postsecondary education and/or into the workforce. This last issue was particularly important to parents: individuals with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in the workforce and can face challenges with the job-search process.

At York, equipping young people with the tools they need to lead fulfilling professional and personal lives is one of our priorities. Through a multitude of means, we are working to provide particular support to students who might face special challenges. One specific example is the Disability & Career Committee, which was established in 2010 and includes representatives from Counselling & Disability Services (CDS) and the Career Centre (CC).

The goals of the committee are twofold:

  1. to create an event that would provide York students with disabilities (e.g. physical, learning, mental health) with an opportunity to connect with employers, community service providers and employees to learn more about employment supports, workplace disclosure and accommodations in the workplace;
  2. to build partnerships with community agencies and employers that support students with disabilities, not only to nurture these relationships for future career opportunities but also to build York’s reputation as a professional and supportive environment in which ALL students have equitable access to a range of campus services that assist in facilitating their success.

Smiling woman sitting behind a sign saying "Devices 4 Disabilities" and in front of a CDS banner

To further both aims, we started small in 2011 — with a panel discussion that attracted nine students with disabilities and four community partners/employers. Five years later, that event has evolved into a full-day symposium, the Career Success Symposium for Students with Disabilities, with a keynote speaker, breakout sessions and increased participation from both students and community partners. In 2016, the event featured as its keynote speaker Michael Landsberg, a Bell Let’s Talk spokesperson and the host of Off the Record on TSN; 101 students participated and 14 employers/community partners attended. This marks fabulous progress on our strategic plan to be Partners in Student Success.

This event evolved from a strong partnership between two units within the Division of Students in which we shared our areas of expertise to help meet students’ needs and to encourage their success. We have also created lasting partnerships with community agencies and employers, further strengthening York’s reputation and building future opportunities for York students.  While the symposium takes place once annually, it has created awareness about and “opened doors” to the many workshops and services offered at the Career Centre throughout the year.

The event has also fostered professional development. While the Career Centre has one staff member with expertise in serving students with disabilities, the symposium provides more exposure to these students. As a direct consequence, the whole CC team has gained tools to better support this cohort in their career exploration and job search.

Two young men standing in front of a projected image thanking participants for joining attending the symposium of career opportunities for students with disabilities

Student participants found great value in the event, as these select testimonials from the 2016 event make clear:

Thank you so much. . . . The event was really awesome, and it was a pleasure meeting all the other attendees and hearing about the different services that work to help create an accessible environment for job-seekers with disabilities. I really appreciate all the planning that went into this event; everything was so well coordinated as well. Thank you.

—Tyler Cenac

 I left the event feeling empowered about my future. The event introduced me to resources I didn’t even know existed. Michael Landsberg was such an inspiring speaker. Meeting him has allowed me to meet someone in my area of interest. The workshops were beneficial, as we got to explore areas of interest or weakness in a smaller group.

Ian Wilgus

The career symposium was a great experience for students with disabilities, as it was very uplifting and a morale booster, because you were around like-minded people coming from different walks of life. They were all battling different obstacles to make a mark for themselves, and this gave an opportunity for everyone’s true potential to come out. . . . I felt like employers, organizations and fellow colleagues were looking past these visible and invisible disabilities to be able to give individuals advice on the basis of their merits.

Alamgir Khandwala

Attending the career success symposium at York University for students with disabilities really impacted the way I see myself achieving my career goals and being successful in the workplace. Getting information from various employers about work accommodations and when to disclose to a potential employer was truly empowering. These tips helped me consider the contributions I can make within an organization by knowing how my disability affects me, using my skills and working to my strengths. Most importantly, the takeaway message for me was that as a person with a disability, I can move forward and achieve my career goals successfully and feel confident in applying to a number of opportunities available in the workplace.

—Esther Lawrence

Please join me in congratulating those members of the VPS team who have contributed to making this event happen, and the students who made the time to participate. My hat goes off to all of them!

 

Janet

 

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