Career Guide for Students with Disabilities

Understanding the ADA, Knowing Your Rights & Finding Disability Resources

Eleven percent of undergraduate students report having a disability, and according to Senator Tom Harkin, one of the authors of the ADA, fewer students with disabilities complete college once they start–41 percent compared to 52 percent of the general population. It's important to support these students while they are in school and after they graduate and embark on their careers. Learn about the ADA, how to receive accommodations in the workplace and where to find internships, jobs and support.

Meet the Expert

Know Your Rights: The ADA & What it Means for You

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 offers numerous protections and directives for how individuals with disabilities must be treated in the workplace. The ADA was formulated with the central belief that disabilities, be they physical or mental, should not lessen a person’s right to have equal opportunities when seeking employment. The ADA is a long and complicated piece of legislation, but every student with a disability should be aware of the main tenets that protect them in the workplace. Highlights include:

  • Workers with disabilities cannot be discriminated against.

  • Equal opportunities must be provided to applicants and workers with disabilities seeking commercial facilities, employment, public accommodations, governmental services and transportation.

  • Telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD) and telephone relay services must be established.

  • The ADA applies to employment agencies, labor organizations and state and local government agencies with 15 or more employees.

  • Unless a reasonable accommodation means a business will face “undue hardship” on the company or its ability to function, employers following ADA rules must work with new and existing employees to provide services. If the accommodation causes undue expense or difficulty, or if the product or service offered would suffer, employer’s may not be required to provide services.

  • All medical records held by employers must be kept confidential.

  • Employers are not allowed to ask specific questions about a prospective or current employee’s disability, but they are allowed to ask about their ability to fulfill the requirements of the job in general. In addition, employers can only require a medical examination if it is a standard procedure for all employees, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.

  • Individuals who oppose discrimination against workers with a disability cannot be retaliated against.

Disclosing & Discussing Your Disability

Disclosing and discussing your disability to an employer takes careful thought and planning, and it is up to the prospective or current employee to decide if they want to and when is best. Under the ADA, individuals are not required to disclose a disability during the application process or after they are hired. It is only if an employee requests a reasonable accommodation that a disclosure must be made. Specific questions about the disability cannot be asked even after disclosure, but employers are allowed to inquire about their medical history and if the disability limits the employee in their capacity to fulfill job requirements.

What is Reasonable Accommodation?

As defined by the ADA, reasonable accommodations encompass assistance or changes that help an employee with a disability do their job without severely disrupting or creating excessive expense for the company. Examples of reasonable accommodations for different types of disabilities include:

How to Request Reasonable Accommodation

Created in 1983 under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, this free governmental service works with employees to help them request and negotiate reasonable accommodations at their place of work.

Request it when you need it

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that accommodations can be requested at any point during the application process and even after employees are hired. The general rule is that accommodations should be requested once a workplace barrier has been identified that will prevent the employee from fully competing for, performing, or gaining equal access to the benefits of any job.

Be prepared for discussing your disability during an interview

Prospective and current employers aren’t allowed to ask applicants or employees about their disability unless it is first disclosed to them. Even if students with disabilities in the job market aren’t yet prepared to ask for accommodations, they may find it helpful to disclose the disability when discussing gaps in work history or other aspects that are easily explained but may otherwise raise brows.

Know what “reasonable” means

The EEOC provides a list of accommodations deemed reasonable, including:

  • Accessibility to existing facilities

  • Restructuring of a role

  • Modified or part-time hours, or work from home

  • Modified or new equipment

  • Alternative tests, training materials, or policies

  • Provision of qualified interpreters or readers

  • Reassignment to a vacant role

  • Medical leave

Examples of requests that aren’t deemed reasonable by the EEOC include:

  • Completely eliminating an essential job function

  • Lowering standards of production

  • Providing items such as eyeglasses, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, or other devices that are also needed outside of work

Choosing a Career

Individuals with disabilities don’t have to be held back by anything these days, with countless assistive technologies and accommodations available to help them succeed in any career they otherwise qualify for. Still, there may be some careers that are more complimentary to specific disabilities that also tick off all the boxes for what new graduates are looking for in a job.

Job & Internship Resources for Disabled Workers

Depending on their chosen career path and type of disability, prospective workers have access to a wide variety of internship and job boards specifically catering to individuals with disabilities.

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science

    Entry Point! Is the AAAS’s seasonal internship for students with apparent and non-apparent disabilities who aspire to careers in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science, or business.

  • American Association of People with Disabilities

    Aside from offering a bevy of services to students with disabilities, this nonprofit also provides 10-week summer internships at their headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

  • InternshipFinder

    IF offers free assistance to college students seeking internships in many different industries. Specific internships for students with disabilities can be found via the website’s search function.


    This website helps students with and without disabilities find suitable internships at sites throughout the world.

  • NASA

    Every year, NASA makes available a STEM scholarship specifically aimed at ensuring more students with disabilities are taking part in the NASA mission.

  • National Business & Disability Council

    The Emerging Leader internship is available within many different career fields throughout the country to students who self-identify as having a disability.

  • WayUp

    In addition to providing free career advice, this internship database maintains close partnerships with some of the leading companies in the world and works to connect students to meaningful internship projects.

  • AbilityJOBS

    The mission of AbilityJOBS is to empower those with disabilities to find suitable employment that fully engages their skills and knowledge in a meaningful role. Employers can post jobs and search resumes stored on the website.

  • Disability Job Exchange

    DJE exists to find the perfect match between employers looking for qualified workers and qualified professionals with disabilities who want to be part of a strong team.

  • Disabled Person

    In addition to myriad services and resources, this website also offers a searchable job board that can be tailored to titles, descriptions, and locations.

  • Recruit Disability

    This national website helps recent graduates and others with disabilities find a job tailored to their interests and connects them with supportive employers.

  • Think Beyond the Label

    Operating as a cross-sector partnership between businesses actively recruiting individuals with disabilities and qualified job seekers, TBL is home to an active job board with many different types of roles advertised.

  • Social Security Administration

    The SSA is a government agency working diligently to hire individuals with disabilities that fit the mission and goals of the administration. A range of jobs and services for employees with disabilities are highlighted on the website.

  • U.S. Office for Personnel Management

    OPM is another branch of the government that actively recruits and hires individuals with disabilities across all agencies. The department provides competitive roles that offer good salaries, impressive benefits, and career advancement.

  • State Governments

    States such as Massachusetts recruit for disability-driven jobs via the Office of Health and Human Services. Students interested in state roles should check with a similar department in their area.

  • Workforce Recruitment Program

    This governmental recruitment and referral program connects college students and recent graduates to federal agencies and private employers looking for highly qualified applicants.

Expert Q&A: Tips for Finding a Job When You are Living with a Disability

Meg O’Connell is the President of Global Disability Inclusion. She is a nationally recognized disability employment expert with over 20 years of experience in human capital management, talent acquisition, performance management, disability inclusion, employee engagement, marketing and customer service programs. In her role, O'Connell provides strategic program design and implementation of disability employment and inclusion programs for Global 500 companies, non-profits and foundations. The firm has three key focus areas – the workforce, the workplace and the marketplace. Her work has received numerous accolades including the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) Innovative Practice Award.  She has been quoted in Diversity Executive magazine, The Huffington Post, DiverseAbility and numerous trade magazines for her insights on employment of people with disabilities.  She keynotes and presents at national conferences regularly.  

What are the top five tips for finding a job when your disabled?

  • 1. Focus on your abilities

    Employers want to know you are smart, capable, willing to learn and that you want to work hard.  This is the same for all employees whether you have a disability or not.  So focus on what the employer needs/wants and how you can add value to the role.

  • 2. Do your research

    The most important aspect of a job search is doing your research on any company.  What would it be like to work there?  Do they have inclusive policies?  Do they have programs that help integrate diverse populations, and people with disabilities?  What can you find out about the company from you network,, etc.?  Learn as much as you can about the company culture and determine if the environment is a good fit for you.  For example, some people thrive in a "sink or swim" culture and love the opportunity to be challenged in this way.  Other prefer a more "collaborative" or "learning lab" culture open to risk taking.  Successful employment is about fit and inclusion.  So knowing the environments that work for you will yield greater success.

  • 3. Understand that disability disclosure can help

    Since 2014, Federal contractors and sub-contractors have been required to comply with Section 503 of the Rehab Act, which sets a seven percent aspirational goal across all job groups for people with disabilities.  This is essentially affirmative action for people with disabilities.  You still have to demonstrate you are qualified and can do the job — but disclosing disability status (not type) can help move you to the front of the line.  Disability disclosure is immensely personal and students should explore their comfort level in openly discussing their disability.

  • 4. Know what you need

    It is important to be able to effectively communicate what you need or don't need on the job.  If you need an accommodation, be prepared to openly discuss what is needed.

  • 5. Be loud and proud

    We are in the middle of a cultural shift of our nation realizing the many contributions of people with disabilities.  Don't be afraid to be active, get engaged and show the world what you can do. It your contributions to the workplace that matter most — not your disability status.

How can students identify roles and industries that accommodate their needs?

Federal contractors are a great place to start since they have new hiring requirements and are actively seeking to hire people with disabilities.  Almost every company we work with says, "we want to hire someone with a disability but can't find then."  So, if you are qualified, then apply — they are looking for you.

The other option is to double down on your research as listed above. Use LinkedIn to navigate to industries you are interested and find experts in your field of interest who can share their experience in various companies.

What should students due if they experience discrimination during the process?

Many big organizations have "clumsy" recruiting processes — they can take way too long to get back to candidates, or the interviewing process can take several months before a decision is made.  So, it is important to discern whether it is a clumsy process or discrimination.  If you truly believe you were discriminated against it is important to speak up for yourself.  Document what happened, contact someone at the organization, an HR Manager or the compliance team. 

If they don't address your concerns, you may want to consider next steps.  However, it is important to note that just because you didn't get a job offer doesn't mean you were discriminated against.

What to Do if You Experience Discrimination

Simply defined, disability discrimination occurs when an employer, at any time before, during or after the employment relationship, puts a disabled person at a significant disadvantage when compared to other employers who don’t have a disability. Examples of disability discrimination in the workplace include:

  • Not appointing someone with a disability to an advertised post, even if they are the best candidate.

  • Stating that a disabled person is not qualified for a role, even if a reasonable accommodation can negate the requirement.

  • Failing or refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation that does not substantially disadvantage the company.

  • Not allowing an employee with a disability to take time off for medical care.

  • Acting hostile or unprofessional if an employee makes a complaint of discrimination.

All of these actions are illegal when done by employment agencies, labor organizations, private employers, or state and local governments. Individuals who have experienced any of type of disability discrimination have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and should immediately contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the incident.

If discrimination is confirmed, individuals are entitled to a remedy that provides all the employee would have received had discrimination not occurred. The remedy may include hiring, promotion, back pay, reinstatement, or a reasonable accommodation. If lawyers are involved, individuals may also request attorney fees be paid by the organization in question.

More Disability Resources

American Foundation for the Blind

Since 1921, the AFB has worked to remove barriers, engineer solutions, and ensure all visually impaired individuals have access to opportunities. The group offers education, publications, career resources, and support for families.


With a mission of bridging the gap between job seekers with disabilities and employees with open positions, GettingHired offers a job board, veteran and student resources, and a blog to help users find a job that’s suited to their interests and abilities.

Job Accommodation Network

An impressively comprehensive resource, JAN provides all the tools employees need when it comes to finding a job and receiving support in their roles.

Learning Disabilities Association of America

LDAA offers support for families and individuals, advocacy efforts, and a bevy of resources. The group also lobbies on behalf of the interests of those with learning disabilities to increase governmental support.

Mobility International USA

This national nonprofit works to promote global inclusion of individuals with mobility impairments by providing international links and exchange programs. The group offers many opportunities for those with mobility impairments to receive support, build community, and become empowered.

National Association for the Deaf

NAD has served individuals with hearing impairments since 1880 and today offers myriad resources and support systems. In addition to a youth ambassador program and youth camp, the organization educates users on discrimination resources, healthcare services, and government resources.

Office of Disability Employment Policy

Operating as part of the Department of Labor, ODEP is a one-stop-shop for students looking to learn about their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ticket to Work

A department of the Social Security Admission, Ticket to Work is a free employment service for individuals with disabilities considering their professional abilities. The agency helps individuals prepare for work, find a suitable role, and achieve continued success in that role.

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