How to find an internship or entry-level job if you’re mentally or physically disabled

How to find an internship or entry-level job if you’re mentally or physically disabled was originally published on College Recruiter.

For decades, employers have invested staff time and other resources into diversifying their applicant pools and workforces. But it wasn’t until George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department that many of those employers invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for reasons other than compliance or public relations. What changed in May 2020 was an awakening as to the societal problems caused by discriminatory conduct, whether that was at the hands of the police or the pen of a recruiter.

At College Recruiter, we saw starting in June 2020 a massive increase in the number of employers who were truly engaged with hiring candidates who those employers considered to be diverse. For many, that meant candidates who were black. For others, it included women. For some, it included military veterans. Yet we’ve seen little change so far in the number of employers who are proactively seeking to be more equitable and inclusive in their hiring practices towards students and recent graduates with mental or physical disabilities. It is our belief that this must change, not just because it is the right thing to do for these people and society, but because it also makes business sense.

Study after study demonstrate that the more diverse a workforce is, the more productive that workforce is. Diversity means different things to different organizations. For example, male teachers are typically diverse in elementary schools but female teachers are diverse in high schools. Candidates who identify sexually as straight might be diverse in a non-profit that advocates for the civil rights of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer while those who are LBGTQ are likely to be considered diverse in the military. But those with mental and physical disabilities are diverse for almost all organizations because very, very few employers employ anywhere close to the number of people who are disabled as would be reflected by their percentage of population.

Approximately 19 percent of undergraduate college students have at least one disability. According to an author of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), 41 percent of disabled college students complete their Bachelor’s degree as compared to 52 percent of the general population. For those with a mental or physical disability, the ADA offers numerous protections and directives for employers. Underlying the law is the premise that a disability should not lessen your right to have equal opportunities when seeking a part-time, seasonal, internship, or entry-level job. 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.

Those with disabilities often want to know whether and when they should disclose that disability to a prospective employer. Under the ADA, it is your choice. You are not required to disclose a disability during the application process or even after being hired unless you decide to request a reasonable accommodation. Even then, employers face tight restrictions on what they’re allowed to ask. At a high-level, employers may only inquire about your medical history and disability limits to the extent required for them to provide the reasonable accommodations you may need in order to fulfill your job duties.

So, what’s a reasonable accommodation? According to the ADA, reasonable accommodations is assistance or changes that help an employee with a disability do their job without severely disrupting or creating excessive expense for the company. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, these include:

  • 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

Excluded are:

  • 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

When is it best to request a reasonable accommodation? According to the EEOC, 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. From a practical matter, that means that a student with a mental or physical disability may find it necessary to disclose that disability to a prospective employer during the interview process. Some of the employers who advertise physically demanding jobs may, for example, ask candidates if they’re able to repeatedly lift 50 pound packages for eight hours without interruption except for standard breaks. Others may point out that their office building is normally accessed by a long set of stairs and ask if that’s going to be a problem. If you use a wheelchair, you’ll likely find it helpful to disclose your physical disability and ask if there are other entrances that you can use. If there are then it is likely that employer will be legally required to accommodate your use of a wheelchair-friendly entrance, even if that entrance is typically not used by other employees.

Fortunately, the world is, in many ways, getting better for those with physical or mental disabilities. Not as equitable as it should be, but better. There are far more assistive technologies and accommodations available today than even a decade ago. Nevertheless, it is clear that some careers are better aligned to college students with disabilities than others. Examples:

We’re often asked by job seekers for relevant tips that can help them find a great part-time, seasonal, internship, or entry-level job. Job seekers with physical or mental disabilities are no different in wanting tips relevant to them. According to Meg O’Connell, president of Global Disability Inclusion:

  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.

Another suggestion for how college and universities students with physical or mental disabilities should search for jobs include applying to jobs with federal, state, and local government agencies and their contractors. They’re typically required by law to hire a certain percentage of their workforce from certain demographics, with disabled being one of those.

If you feel that you were discriminated against, first be careful to determine if your treatment was due to your disability or if the treatment you received is typical for how that employer treats is applicants or employees. Disability discrimination occurs when an employer at any time before, during, or after the employment relationship puts a disabled person at a significant disadvantage. If the employer treated you like crap but treats everyone like crap then you weren’t discriminated against. If you were, document your experiences and present them to a human resource representative who works for the organization. Often, that person will help to resolve the problem. If they can’t or won’t, escalate by contacting the EEOC within 180 days of the incident. If they confirm the discrimination, you’ll be entitled to receive from the employer everything that you would have received if you had not been discriminated against. That typically translates into you being hired with back pay and reasonable accommodations and your attorney fees paid for by the employer.

By College Recruiter
College Recruiter believes that every student and recent grad deserves a great career.