The Forgotten Work Force

Job hunting for the college graduate with a disability

Article Highlights:

For individuals with disabilities, available resources help them to get started on a career path. Meet four people who've waded into the job pool, and the advice they have to offer other job seekers.

by Kathy Wechsler on May 1, 2004 - 4:06pm

You've just rolled across the stage, with your college diploma in hand. A huge weight has been lifted from your shoulders, but before you get too comfortable, you need to face the reality of finding a job and the added stress of finding one when you have a disability.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that a college education guarantees you a job in your desired field. But, though the search may prove long and challenging, there's help available.

Roadblocks on the path

Paul Meyer of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in Washington specializes in the transition for college students into the working world. Meyer says employers are nervous about hiring a recent college graduate with a disability because they're uncertain of the person's ability to perform the work. They also fear that the person won't be able to handle a 40-hour workweek or hasn't gained experience through volunteerism, internships or summer jobs.

The fact that most colleges don't have career placement programs for students with disabilities is disturbing, and the dilemma is made worse by employers, who don't go to disabled student offices to find students, he adds.

"The placement office is uncomfortable so they say, 'They're handicapped. Deal with that office,'" said Meyer. "The disabled student office says, 'Go to placement.' So the students, many of them, fall into the cracks."

Another obstacle is that many students with disabilities are pushed into fields that have an overloaded job market, such as social sciences.

Meyer recommends that students keep the job market in mind when choosing a field of study. Ask yourself, "Will this get me a job?"

"The biggest obstacle in my mind would be the way society views people with disabilities," said Frank Warner, founder and president of United People with Disabilities" (UPWD), a national organization based in Palmetto, Fla.

Warner, who has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, led an employment workshop for people with disabilities at the 2003 Abilities Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I'd start the workshop out by staying behind a curtain so that nobody could see me," said Warner, 49. "I would ask questions on what I look like. You'd be surprised at the answers that people fill out just because of the preconceived notion they have from hearing my voice."

Leave no stone unturned

Warner advises using your resume to get your foot in the door. A piece of paper carries no preconceived notions, and an impressive resume will provide you with an equal (or better) chance when compared to any other applicant.

Urban Miyares, president of the Disabled Businesspersons Association in San Diego, recommends being active in your search for employment. His nonprofit organization provides rehabilitation, self-employment and business information, and assistance for business-minded individuals with disabilities.

Overlook nothing. It's important to keep an open mind while job hunting. If the job market is rough, you may want to start a small business from your home with the goal of gaining outside employment. It's good to have work to show while you're hunting.

Or, you may want to take Warner's approach and create several smaller jobs that add up to equal one. Besides his work at UPWD, Warner produces cartoon joke books, creates video commercials for companies' Web sites and is the national sales manager for Haseltine Systems, which makes protective wheelchair containers for airline travel.

"A well-rounded person with a disability who by his or her personality and communication skills can demonstrate self-confidence and value to others will secure employment, whether or not it's in the field they originally inquired about or applied for," said Miyares, 56, who has visual and hearing disabilities. He stresses the urgency of sacrifice, personal improvement and a willingness to change.

Where do we go from here?

"Corporate America is now seeing the worth of people with disabilities," said Warner. "The CIA was at the last Abilities Expo trying to recruit people with disabilities." Many large companies and government agencies are putting advertisements in magazines for people with disabilities.

Numerous organizations help people with disabilities find positions that use their skills and talents. (See "Job-Hunting Resources.")

Project EARN

Meyer of ODEP oversees the Employer Assistance Referral Network (EARN), a national service designed to help employers locate and recruit qualified workers with disabilities. In its third year, Project EARN also provides technical assistance on disability employment-related issues.

For the most part, employers are willing to hire qualified candidates with disabilities, but don't know how to find them, Meyer says. For example, they call a state Vocational Rehabilitation agency to find someone with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Meyer says, but in truth, most Ph.D.s in electrical engineering don't go through Voc Rehab. Employers then get frustrated, wanting to fill the position quickly.

This is where Project EARN comes in. In linking employers with service providers, Project EARN helps employers find qualified individuals with disabilities without wasting time looking in the wrong place.

Job seekers can register with Project EARN.


The Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) provides summer work experience, and in some cases permanent full-time employment, for college students and recent graduates with disabilities.

Placing 300 to 400 students across the country every summer, the WRP allows students to market their abilities to a wide variety of potential employers. Students can also brush up on interviewing skills and gain needed experience.

In order to be eligible for the WRP, you must have a disability, be a U.S. citizen and be either a full-time college student or a recent (within a year) graduate. Ask your disabled student office if it participates in the WRP.

The last laugh

Finding a job is difficult, but hard work and a positive attitude are the ingredients for a successful job hunt.

Once you have the job, the best way to ensure job security is to go above and beyond what's required of your position. Make yourself indispensable. This doesn't seem to be a problem for most people with disabilities, since they're used to proving themselves.

"I've seen this as I've worked for different companies and they would also hire other employees with disabilities," said Warner of UPWD. "I've watched the other employees, and the employees with disabilities basically do a better job than the nondisabled people."

See "From Where I Sit," for one young woman's solution to the job search dilemma.

Meet four graduates who've taken different paths toward employment.

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The extra mile

Jacob Gapko
Jacob Gapko

"It's wonderful to have your degree but then you've got to go and get the experience because all the jobs want experience," said Jacob Gapko, 26, of Eau Claire, Wis.

"What don't they want to give you unless you have experience? A job."

Gapko, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, received his bachelor of science degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 2001. His undergraduate internship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science placed him at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Center at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

His experience at the center's technical library led Gapko to pursue a master's degree in library information science, which he received from the UW at Milwaukee in December 2002.

Even with a master's degree, looking for a library position in the Eau Claire area was no easy feat with Wisconsin's budget cuts. Gapko's persistence paid off in November, when he landed a job as a part-time cataloger for the Chippewa Valley Technical College Library.

During his job search, which lasted almost a year, Gapko volunteered his knowledge of technical services at the local public library. He gained experience, built up his confidence and made contacts with people in the field.

"Even if you have your degree you might need to gain experience in the capacity of a volunteer or as an intern," Gapko said. "Make good use of the network you have developed."

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Goals and opportunities

Kelley Van Auken
Kelly Van Auken

"Having muscular dystrophy certainly presents challenges that I would not be faced with if I weren't disabled, but I would not say that it has dramatically affected my life negatively," said Kelley Van Auken, who received a diagnosis of spinal muscular atrophy in 1981. "If anything, it has probably made me a stronger person."

Originally from Tucson, Ariz., Van Auken, 27, now lives in San Diego, and works as a community representative for U.S. Rep. Susan Davis. Van Auken represents the seven coastal neighborhoods in the San Diego area and covers issues such as the environment, energy, disability, immigration, senior citizens, Medicare, Social Security and animal rights.

Van Auken's job responsibilities keep her busy attending meetings and events, planning community events, writing letters and keeping on top of issues.

Although she was fortunate to find employment directly after graduating from college, Van Auken did her fair share of hard work to get to that point.

"Being disabled necessitates developing skills, such as problem solving and organizational, that are useful to anyone in many aspects of life," she said.

Van Auken began her quest for success early in life, working as an administrative assistant in the TV Production Department at MDA's national headquarters in Tucson at 16.

The summer after her junior year at the University of Arizona, she was placed in an internship at the Volunteer Office of the White Housein Washington. Even though she needed two more classes to complete her bachelor of arts degree in political science and economics, Van Auken took on a newly created deputy director position in 1998 and finished her college education in the evenings.

In 1999 she became director of the White House Comment Line, Greetings Office and Volunteer Program. She held this position until the end of the Clinton administration in early 2001.

After a short rest at home in Tucson, Van Auken wanted to try a different city and moved to San Diego, where she began a job search by sending out resumes to places of interest, going on informational interviews to meet important people and attending political events to network.

With her goal in mind, Van Auken was able to meet the right people to circulate her resume and applied for a spot in Davis' office. She's held that position since 2002.

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Born to teach

Debbie Kornegay
Debbie Kornegay

Debbie Kornegay of Centreville, Ala., wanted a job in which she could contribute her talents and skills.

"The only thing I didn't want more than being an unemployed college graduate was having an employer's pity or being their token employee," said Kornegay, 35, who has spinal muscular atrophy. "Although I greatly believe in the Americans with Disabilities Act [part of which forbids discrimination against people with disabilities in hiring], I also acknowledge the fact that people with disabilities need to be just as good at their jobs as able-bodied people could be."

Kornegay studied to become an accountant. She received a bachelor of science in commerce and business administration from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she was a student worker for the dean of the College of Commerce & Business Administration. While earning a master's in accountancy, she realized that there were many accessibility obstacles in the accounting internship program.

"During my last two years of college, I kept praying that God would work things out for me," said Kornegay, who received Alabama's MDA Personal Achievement Award in 1996 and 1997. "I trusted that He would."

Sure enough, Kornegay received some valuable advice from one of her professors after giving a presentation on accounting theory. The professor asked if she'd considered teaching and "planted the seed," which ultimately led to Kornegay's being hired in 2001 to teach accounting at Judson College in Marion, Ala. Kornegay is currently working on her Ph.D. in business administration at Touro University International through an accredited online program.

Kornegay has worked through many obstacles so she can continue teaching. Student workers perform tasks that are difficult for her such as running errands in inaccessible places, writing on the board during class and using the copy machine. She'd thought about how to jump these hurdles during her job search.

"I recommend hand-delivering resumes," said Kornegay, who stresses that meeting employers in person helps them see you as a person and not just a disability.

Kornegay advises college graduates not to underestimate their abilities.

"Apply for jobs that you truly feel you can be good at," she said. "Be confident that you can do the jobs you choose to apply for and that you can modify things that you can foresee giving you trouble. Make sure the employer sees your confidence."

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Confidence and passion

"[Finding a job] is like trying to get elected and trying to get a date all at once," said Patrick Harris of Fort Worth, Texas. "You have to go at it passionately, smartly, and know your stuff, while looking good, smelling fine, and remaining charming and engaging."

Patrick Harris
Patrick Harris

Harris, 23, who earned a bachelor's degree in business administration for e-business from Texas Christian University, shifted his job search from parttime to fulltime after graduating in 2003.

Found to have facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy in 1990, Harris, who shares an apartment near the university with a roommate, uses a manual wheelchair powered by his feet. His disability has taught him to adapt to the world with accessibility in mind.

"I'm confident in my abilities," said Harris, who's looking for an information technology position but is willing to explore Web design and other computer-related positions. Harris was accepted to graduate school at George Washington University and this year began the online master's program in educational technology leadership.

The job hunt has been tough for Harris, especially because he isn't able to drive and can only apply for positions in Fort Worth. Another issue is one that everyone faces — you have to know someone.

"You'd think it would be as simple as, Hey, I know X, Y and Z," said Harris, who has a broad knowledge of computers and informational technology. "But sadly it's about knowing A, B and C — Alan, Betty and Christopher — who can help you get hired."

Keeping his options open, Harris has examined a variety of opportunities. He's tried writing, starting his own business and applying for clerical positions. Online searches and word-of-mouth are his main ways to locate vacant positions.

"If someone says I haven't been trying hard enough, that's asinine, and that's because they have a job," said Harris, who's doing Web design for his father's small business that restores antique automobiles.

What's his advice to college graduates in the job-hunting trenches? Volunteer whenever possible. It's a good way to get experience and meet people, Harris said, and it looks great on a resume.

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Job-Hunting Resources

Disabled Businesspersons Association
(619) 594-8805

JobAccess and ABILITYJobs

Jobs for the Future
(617) 728-4446


Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act

Federal Employment of People with Disabilities
(202) 606-1800

Job Accommodation Network
(800) 526-7234

National Council on Disability
(202) 272-2004

Office of Disability Employment Policy
(866) 633-7365

Project EARN

Social Security Administration
The Work Site
(800) 772-1213

Workforce Recruitment Program


Employment Resources for the Disabled
A list of more than 50 resources, some featured above, divided into categories such as finding a job, federal grants and disability laws.

Editor's note: The Resources section was updated on Nov. 8, 2010.

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