According to research by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), approximately 74% of blind college graduates are unemployed. Even though there is some dispute about the actual percentages, the reality is that blind students often do not come out of college prepared for the workplace. This is something I have firsthand experience with.
After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I went straight into graduate school. The NFB unemployment statistics scared me, since I had to ensure I would have a job after graduating and be able to be self-sufficient. But the scarier part is that most blind people cannot count on entry-level jobs such as working in a fast food restaurant, or being a cashier. The reason for that is usually not lack of skills, but the preconception of what blind people can do and the perceived liability factor that stops employers from giving blind people an opportunity to try.
I decided to explore potential careers. After all, that is what people who are successful do during college. I sought advice from alumni and professors in the fields I believed I was interested in, mainly business and design. I also looked for the help of career services. After 6 months in this journey I recognized a pattern of advice. To be successful and have life-long career success I would need to:
1) Know what I was good at (self-exploration);
2) Discover what I was passionate about doing (career exploration); and
3) Develop soft skills that would allow me to be successful interacting with the world
Universities provide students with most of the hard skills through theoretical and practical classes. However, the exploration of developing soft and professional skills is left up to the student. Many do this through becoming involved with campus leadership, internships, and student-run organizations or social clubs. I decided to be more involved with traditional campus leadership, and find work experiences that would allow me to diversify my experience and understand what I was good at, what I enjoyed and to develop my soft skills. It was critical to know if I was in a degree that matched my skills.
There were many barriers that I ran into as I attempted to become involved in my campus. It was a struggle for me to get accessible versions of bills while serving as a student senator. The design firm I worked for did not use software that was accessible to screen readers. And I got a business internship in a city that was 45 minutes away, but had limited public transportation or para-transit options. I knew I had to explore my career options and practice my soft skills, but it was proving very difficult to do so. It was frustrating, but I never quit.
I wanted to write this blog because I believe students with disabilities will likely face barriers while attending school, exploring jobs, and working on being a part of their communities. For me, getting to and through college was only half the battle. I had to work hard to identify and address the barriers to work nobody taught me about.
Students should be encouraged to join leadership activities as well as internships and part-time jobs in order to gain experience in a safe environment where they can practice and fail before starting a real job. Students like me can learn how to advocate for themselves, but the real hard and soft experiences of a job go beyond just knowing how to advocate. Asking for accommodation successfully is only placing a foot in the door. The true question is how do you stay and learn how to perform? Students going to college should ask the institution what kind of job and leadership programs they offer and ask disability services how they support you with those school programs. Also if you get a job or an internship what kind of resources will you have? Don’t let anyone discourage you from a job because it is added stress in your studies. Take longer in college if necessary, but come out prepared for your career whatever that might be.
Rachel Magario is a native of Brazil and is currently a volunteer at PACER in Minneapolis, MN. PACER is a partner in the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth.
- PACER’S Off to College: Tips for Students with Visual Impairments
- Career Exploration in Action: An Innovative Strategies Practice Brief
- Engaging Youth in Work Experiences: An Innovative Strategies Practice Brief
- Youth in Action! – Participating in Internships and Work-Based Experiences
- Youth in Action! Becoming a Stronger Self-Advocate
- Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success
- Using Career Interest Inventories to Inform Career Planning