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Breaking down barriers to employment for graduates with disabilities


Across Canada, people with disabilities experience significantly lower rates of employment—including those with post-secondary qualifications. Many people with disabilities find it difficult to enter the workforce after graduation, and those who do often struggle to secure jobs that match their skills. 

As a result, this segment of the population is at much greater risk of financial insecurity—so much so that, today, one in four Canadians with severe disabilities are living in poverty.  

In 2019, we set out to better understand the contributing factors to these alarming statistics. We conducted rigorous data analysis to help us identify and find ways to address the systemic challenges faced by graduates with disabilities in East Ontario.  

This led to the creation of Improving Employment Outcomes for Post-Secondary Graduates with Disabilities. We recently discussed the findings of this report with Shannon Bruce, Director of Employment Initiatives. Here, Shannon shares the impact of this analysis and how our communities can work together to make a difference. 

What motivated the creation of this report? 

United Way has a long history of engaging with the community to improve labour market participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workplace. Over the past 10 years, we’ve brought together dozens of community partners, employers, and educators through the Employment Accessibility Resource Network (EARN)—each with a shared goal of eliminating barriers to employment for job seekers with disabilities.  

Through our work with post-secondary institutions, we recognized the uniquely challenging experiences of post-secondary graduates with disabilities. And, we noted a gap in the provision of employer education and resources in this area. 

We also knew that employers were struggling to find the talent they needed in their organizations. But, we couldn’t understand why they weren’t leveraging this virtually-untapped, emerging talent pool.

All of this led us on a journey to better understand the issue in our communities and how we can achieve improved outcomes for graduates with disabilities. 

What are some of the key findings? 

Firstly, the barriers faced by this group often start at a young age—well before they enter post-secondary education, and the effects are cumulative. Many families have difficulty accessing the right psychological and/or medical assessments to get proper diagnoses, which can lead to a gap in supports. 

From a young age, some children who, with the right supports in place could otherwise be very successful, are labelled a “problem child”. They might experience disciplinary issues, which reduces engagement in their education. 

In high school, these students are less likely to take part in early work experiences, like co-op programs or after-school jobs. Meaning that after graduation, they are entering the labour market with less experience than their peers without disabilities. 

We see the same pattern in post-secondary education. Students with disabilities often participate less in work-integrated learning opportunities, such as co-op, summer jobs and internships. Without these vital experiences, employers don’t see these graduates as “job-ready”.

In the workplace, there are still many systematic barriers that can impact opportunities for graduates with disabilities to find employment. For example, many job postings are inaccessibly formatted or include requirements that are not truly indicative of the role. This can lead some job seekers to self-select out of a position that might actually be in line with their skills. 

How can the gaps in research in this area be addressed? 

The sector understands that data is essential to telling the story and understanding the issues. This is where funders, researchers, and all levels of government need to come together and engage with the community. There needs to be more local-level research to truly understand how this issue is affecting graduates with disabilities across the region.

Why is it important to recognize intersectionality in the context of this report?    

Sometimes there’s a tendency to refer to persons with disabilities, or in this case graduates with disabilities, as a homogenous group. In reality, every experience with disability is unique—and, beyond that, individuals are made up of numerous identities. In the context of this report, we felt it was important to highlight the impact that multiple marginalized identities can have on employment, and the opportunities that may be afforded to an individual. 

How can the community work together to make a difference in this area? 

We know that employers in our communities want to ensure they’re finding the best talent for their current and future workforce. But they may be missing out on some amazing individuals because of outdated and uninformed recruitment practices. Employers need to address any behavioural barriers in their workplaces, foster inclusive work environments, and support inclusive early work experience opportunities. 

Educators need to address gaps in research and data to better understand the needs of their students, from early years through to post-secondary. Teachers and administrators must be equipped to address systemic barriers and misconceptions, create learning environments that meet the needs of students, while also supporting inclusive early work experiences. 

We need help from research bodies to improve access to local level data focusing on the experiences of post-secondary graduates with disabilities.

Community partners have a role to play in bridging the gap from school to work. They are sources of expertise, knowledge and resources who can help graduates with disabilities find supports and be prepared for their careers. 

Finally, we need all levels of government to consult with the local communities and leverage their knowledge of uniquely-local labour market issues, and issues related to persons with disabilities. This will be integral to the development, planning, implementation, and evaluation of programs that will impact persons with disabilities—and, more specifically, the young people who are our future workforce. 

What is United Way committed to doing? 

Over the past ten years, EARN has actively engaged our community to improve employment outcomes for persons with disabilities. And, since 2012, more than 5,000 persons with disabilities have found employment through the efforts of the network. 

As part of this work, we have committed to collaborating with post-secondary institutions, employers, and the community at large to understand the challenges faced by post-secondary graduates and the needs of our local labour market. 

We will continue to leverage the expertise and knowledge of our community partners to develop and deliver employer workshops. These will help employers become more inclusive and accessible in their recruitment and employment practices. At the same time, we are working on employer resources focused on the needs of both post-secondary students and graduates. 

We’re also committed to conducting further research focused on better understanding the talent gap for persons with disabilities across our region, in Prescott-Russell, Ottawa, Lanark and Renfrew Counties. 

We will continue to leverage our networks and coordinate feedback to advocate and inform all levels of government.

Learn more about the outcomes of this report and how you can help post-secondary graduates with disabilities find employment.



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