The Labour Market Experience of Postsecondary Graduates with Disabilities

by Saul Schwartz and Jennifer Stewart from the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University

In many ways, it has become easier for people with disabilities to succeed in higher education. For those with physical disabilities, modern technology — computers that translate speech into text, electronic textbooks with changeable fonts, methods for representing material in non-textual ways — has made learning more accessible. For those with non-apparent disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities) support in the form of extra time on tests, or quiet rooms in which to take those tests, has helped to level the playing field. Universities have set up offices devoted to providing appropriate services for students with all sorts of disabilities; these offices not only provide advice but also liaise directly with faculty to ensure that student needs are met.

One consequence of these developments is that the proportion of students with disabilities who graduate from high school, enroll in postsecondary education and obtain a postsecondary credential has markedly increased in recent decades. McCloy and Declou (2013, p. 10) report that, in Ontario, “the percentage of college and university graduates who reported a disability has been increasing since the 1980s, rising from 3 per cent of certificate/diploma graduates and 2.2 per cent of bachelor’s degree graduates in 1986 to 8.7 per cent and 6.6 per cent, respectively, for the 2005 graduating class.”

An important factor in this welcome development was the adoption of “inclusive education” in elementary and secondary schools. Inclusive education has dramatically increased the extent to which those with disabilities are integrated into regular classrooms in regular schools. The proportion of young people with physical disabilities who have graduated from high school is now about the same as the proportion among young people without any disabilities; however, the proportion of high school graduates among young people with non-apparent disabilities, including severe cognitive disabilities, remains lower.

At least some of the observed increase in the proportion of graduates with disabilities is the result of increased reporting of disabilities. For example, because it is now more likely that elementary and secondary school students are diagnosed with learning disabilities, more may identify themselves as having a disability when they get to college or university. In addition, the growth in campus-based services has increased the incentive for students to self-identify because they can now receive meaningful assistance. Finally, the existence of significant government financial aid for students who document permanent disabilities may also have increased the likelihood that such students will self-identify.

While welcome, the increase in educational attainment does not imply that all is smooth sailing for people with disabilities. They may still face higher costs — in terms of time, effort and money — and, as a result, their dropout rate may be higher than for people without disabilities.[1] Perhaps more importantly, if greater educational attainment does not lead to greater labour market success, the underutilization of the talents of this group of Canadians will persist.

Two studies have recently explored the labour market experience of Canadian postsecondary graduates with learning disabilities (Goodfellow, 2014; Holmes & Silvestri, 2011). These authors were particularly interested in the graduates’ experiences on the job. Goodfellow (2013) emphasized the dilemma created when workers with learning disabilities must either: (a) risk stigmatization if they disclose their disability in order to receive accommodation; or (b) avoid stigmatization by not disclosing their disability but then not being given any accommodation. The workers interviewed by Goodfellow avoided disclosing until they felt they had demonstrated their on-the-job competence. Until then, they developed and used strategies to “pass” as not having a disability.

Holmes and Silvestri (2011) also studied Canadian postsecondary graduates with learning disabilities. They surveyed postsecondary graduates who had been formally classified as having a learning disability (LD) according to a standard definition, and then followed up with in-person interviews of 49 of the 125 individuals in their sample. With the caveat that the survey had a very low response rate — the 125 respondents represented about 20 percent of those they attempted to survey — the survey revealed that most respondents (72 percent) felt that their disability affected their on-the-job performance. Perhaps they were slower than colleagues to process information, slower to read and write, less adept at spelling but, nonetheless, only 38 percent had disclosed their disability to their employers. Thus the majority did not seek any accommodation that might have helped them deal with their disabilities. Instead, they adopted low-visibility strategies, often learned from disability services offices, such as arriving at work early and using time management strategies.

While exploring the lived experience of people with disabilities is invaluable, sample sizes are necessarily small and therefore perhaps unrepresentative of broader populations. While survey questions do not typically allow in-depth responses, they can provide much larger and more representative samples and still allow for the exploration of some important types of questions.

Fichten et al. (2012) surveyed a sample of about 1,500 graduates from three large two-year colleges in Canada. The employment rates for graduates with disabilities (about 12 percent of the respondents) were roughly the same as the employment rates for graduates without disabilities.

Data from the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability suggests that, among people with mild or moderate disabilities, those with a postsecondary degree have labor force outcomes that are comparable to those of those without disabilities. For example, Turcotte (2014, p. 4) writes: “Among university graduates, the employment rate of those with a moderate disability (adjusted for age differences) was 77%, compared with 78% among those with a mild disability and 83% among those without a disability.”

Using a unique survey conducted on behalf of the Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP) in 2009, Jennifer Stewart and I tried to answer questions about the educational attainment and labour force experience of students who had documented a permanent disability in order to be eligible for a grant from the CSLP. Those surveyed included students with and without permanent disabilities, all of whom had first enrolled in a postsecondary institution between 2002 and 2004 and received a loan or grant from the CSLP. Because they were surveyed in 2009, five to seven years after first enrolling, we can assess their educational attainment and their early post-schooling labour force experience. And because we had access to information about the loans and grants issued to the survey respondents, we can also check to see if students with permanent disabilities borrowed more or less than students without such disabilities.

Part II of this blog will present our findings.

[1] See Chambers, Bolton and Sukhai (2013) for a description of the extra costs that people with non-apparent disabilities) face in the postsecondary context.

Works Cited:

Chambers, T., Bolton, M., & Sukhai, M. (2013). Financial Barriers for Students with Non-apparent Disabilities within Canadian Postsecondary Education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26(1), 53–66.

Fichten, C. S., Jorgensen, S., Havel, A., Barile, M., Ferraro, V., Landry, M.-È., … Asuncion, J. (2012). What happens after graduation? Outcomes, employment, and recommendations of recent junior/community college graduates with and without disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation, 34(11), 917–925.

Goodfellow, A. (2014). Negotiating the “Catch-22”: Transitioning to Knowledge Work for University Graduates with Learning Disabilities. Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, 22, 24–44.

Holmes, A., & Silvestri, R. (2011). Employment Experience of Ontario’s Postsecondary Graduates with Disabilities. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

McCloy, U., & DeClou, L. (2013). Disability in Ontario: Postsecondary education participation rates, student experience and labour market outcomes (No. Issue Paper No. 14). Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from

Turcotte, M. (2014). Persons with disabilities and employment. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada. Retrieved from



About Saul Schwartz

Professor School of Public Policy and Administration Carleton University Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6 Canada
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