To support students with disabilities in their career pursuits, Northeastern University implements an intensive and all-encompassing approach built on collaboration, education and relationship development.

At the heart of the institution’s success working with students with disabilities is the collaboration between three offices: Cooperative Education, Career Development and the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Collectively, these departments work together to provide the necessary resources to students, educate university staff and faculty on how to best support students, and develop talent pipelines with top employers.

Counseling and Empowering Students with Disabilities

According to Max Sederer, the DRC’s Disability Specialist and Employment Manager, the Northeastern philosophy regarding career development for disabled students is, “We work to provide opportunities the same as we would for any other student.”

Director of Career Development Diane Ciarletta reiterates that point in saying, “There isn’t a difference in how we think of students with disabilities on this campus in regard to their career development. We want them to participate in every opportunity that anyone else would, from co-ops to internships.”

While Sederer works specifically with students with disabilities, he argues that every Northeastern student has strengths and weaknesses, and the DRC supports weaknesses and focuses on showcasing strengths regardless of what they may be.

The difference, though, between students dealing with a disability and those that are not is disclosure. We’ll get to this issue more in the following sections, but if a student has disclosed a disability is hindering their career development, a wrap-around model of counseling is used.

If a student is struggling and would like to set up a meeting, a disability specialist, career specialist and co-op specialist will all join said student in the same room to talk through the impacts of his or her disability and strategize a plan of action to help them land a co-op, internship or full-time job opportunity.

Sederer also runs an employer-in-residence program within the DRC. This initiative eliminates any complications surrounding disclosure because it’s understood the visiting employer is setting up shop in the DRC to specifically meet students with disabilities.

“Companies realize that there are incentives within government for them to attract students with disability, but there is also a lot of research to show that these are otherwise qualified candidates who are, in some cases, more qualified,” Sederer explained. “We talk very frequently about grit and perseverance, and those being marketable skills. This is a population that has been forced to develop those skills.”

Staff Support and Education Regarding Disclosure

Students are not required to disclose if they have a disability. That is their choice, but that can make accommodating those students a bit tricky.

At Northeastern, Ciarletta and Sederer make it clear to students that, in order to receive DRC aid relating to opportunities on campus, they must disclose their disability and register with that office.

“As it relates to anything off campus, that’s independent of the university. So, when they are going on co-op, if they are going to be looking for accommodation, they have to disclose to that co-op employer,” Sederer detailed. “Similarly, if they are going to apply for a job and may need accommodation for an interview or the application process, they need to disclose. If they don’t require specific accommodation, they don’t need to disclose. It is up to them to determine if they want to, and how they go about it varies in each and every situation.”

In addition, Cooperative Education, Career Development and the DRC educate and support staff on disclosure best practices.

Here is a brief summary of appropriate handling of disclosure: If faculty or staff suspect a student maybe be hindered by a disability, they should absolutely recommend support on campus. But, instead of directly recommending a student to the DRC, Sederer says it is best to point out there are numerous avenues for support on campus — including the DRC.

This past year, Ciarletta and Sederer — as well as the third member of their cohort, Ronnie Porter from Cooperative Education — took their show on the road and ran trainings with co-op advisors at the different colleges within Northeastern.

With a goal of creating a culture of advocacy on the campus, Ciarletta, Porter and Sederer provided best practices to the co-op advisors spread across the colleges. They worked with advisors on how to help students approach disclosure.

Exposing Employers to Students with Disabilities

Career Development, Cooperative Education and the DRC have also spearheaded initiatives to educate employers on disability hiring and expand students’ exposure to employment opportunities.

Two years ago, Northeastern’s annual employer-partner conference focused on recruiting and retaining individuals with disabilities.

“It was designed to bring employers who had that concern here to have a discussion,” Ciarletta said. “It really was a product of us going out, going to conferences, and really talking about this subject. Also, in discussing with our employer advisory board, they were very inspired and said, ‘Let’s take some action.’”

Roughly 100 employers attended the conference, and the three offices collaborated to develop a highly engaging and educational program.

Alan Muir, Co-founder and Executive Director of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, served as the keynote speaker. He discussed the updated regulations to Section 503 and offered insight on how to meet that mandate. In addition, members from Northeastern’s employer advisory board representing companies such as State Street, Philips and Johnson & Johnson served on a panel to share their best practices on disability and diversity hiring.

Getting employers through the doors and exposed to students has been an initiative the three offices work together to constantly improve upon.

“We’ve enhanced our partnerships, both with employers and external community agencies,” Ciarletta said. “We seek employers that are really hungry for diversity, and disability falls into that category. We talk to them and they talk to us about how we can build pipelines for them to access students.”

Due to Northeastern’s proven expertise on best practices for recruiting and retaining students with disabilities, often, employers are seeking out Ciarletta, Sederer or Porter to get in front of students.

“Just because they express interest, though, doesn’t necessitate that we will partner with them,” Sederer noted. “They have to be doing more than just inquiring. For instance, if they are already on our advisory board, and they’re displaying best practices in the community, we’ll certainly want to work with them.

During Northeastern’s larger career fairs, Sederer takes it upon himself to scout out optimal employers to find out where their needs are.

“I’m also looking to fulfill the needs of the students,” he said. “At this most recent career fair I targeted companies working in healthcare because we have strong pharmacy, nursing and physical therapy programs. So far, I haven’t been able to offer many options to those students, so I reached out to Partners HealthCare, Cigna Health Insurance and Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. We’re now in conversations about developing a partnership.

Northeastern University has been developing strong workforce contributors throughout its 100-year-plus history, and its innovation to meet the demands of both students and employers never stops.

Thanks to the collective work of Ciarletta, Sederer and Porter students, higher education professionals and employers are all brought together to ensure students with disabilities receive the same opportunities and career development as their peers.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons (by Jeffery Rauschert [CC BY-SA 4.0])