Adjusting the Career Counseling Process for Individuals with Non-Apparent Disabilities

By Janine Rowe

As the number of individuals in the United States with disabilities, currently ~50 million, continues to grow (Brault, 2012), the population of people with non-apparent disabilities – issues that are not necessarily visible to others – is also expected to expand. While any person living with a disability may be subject to social stigmas, including assumptions about their intelligence, capabilities, and interests, those with non-apparent disabilities can face specific challenges. Those with learning and psychiatric disabilities can be unfairly characterized as lazy, dramatic, or lacking discipline. Symptoms of these disabilities may be trivialized by those around them, and many people with non-apparent disabilities seek to ease social stigma by attempting to “pass” as a person without a disability (Triano, 2004). In the working world, this may mean they choose not to disclose their disability or request accommodations from employers. However, it is critical that career counselors working with these individuals find ways to support these clients in navigating professional situations that may prove particularly difficult.

Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are defined as any disability in processing information, including difficulties with reading, writing, math skills, organization, abstract reasoning, memory, or attention (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014). Career counselors working with clients with learning disabilities may notice planning and communication challenges. For example, it may take an individual several seconds to formulate verbal responses to counseling questions. While working with these clients, counselors should consider using and suggesting practical supportive strategies such as electronic calendars or color-coded systems for organizing assignments. These tools are often low-cost or free, and can prove valuable for clients both during the counseling process and while on the job. Counselors should also try to provide detailed notes that can be read carefully after each meeting, including outlining next steps. Reducing time pressures whenever possible is also helpful, such as providing several weeks of notice before upcoming assignment deadlines, allowing clients to pace themselves. Lastly, counselors may want to reduce distractions in their offices, by silencing phones and electronic reminders, for maximum appointment productivity.

Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism Spectrum Disorders encompass two characteristics: repetitive or unusual behavior, and social communication challenges. Counselors may notice that clients from this population have difficulty understanding non-verbal cues, and make poor eye contact. They may prefer routines and have difficulty with transitions or unexpected changes (Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2015). While counseling within this population, counselors should be concrete about their expectations and use directive language. Stress management techniques are essential, especially in anticipating how the client will deal with change and uncertainty in pursuing their professional goals. Career counselors can also assist with demystifying the job application process, exploring and role-playing some of the more challenging social requirements, such as networking and interviewing.

Psychiatric Disabilities
Psychiatric disabilities include mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These disabilities are often very challenging because symptoms can be unpredictable and even debilitating. Psychiatric disabilities are heavily stigmatized in our country, which may discourage individuals from disclosing their disability both to their potential employer and to their counselors (Young, 2013). When working with clients with psychiatric disabilities, counselors should take care to use positive redirection and reinforcement liberally. For example, if a client expresses frustration that they will “never be able to get a job,” the counselor may choose to both validate the client’s experience and remind the client of the progress they have made to date. Lastly, clients with difficulty managing stress or maintaining attention may benefit from multiple brief counseling sessions, versus more sporadic longer sessions.

Chronic Health Conditions
Many chronic health conditions, such epilepsy, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer, may not always be visible, but they can greatly impact an individuals’ ability to function professionally. While working with these clients, counselors should inquire as to how they can be most helpful in the event of a medical emergency during a session. Clients may also find it useful to have the option of meeting via Skype, email, or phone instead of in-person whenever their symptoms are exacerbated. Lastly, role-playing can be useful in helping clients practice disclosing their illness and requesting accommodations in the workplace. They may need help thinking through how to best word a time-off request for frequent medical appointments, or fielding questions from colleagues like “Why aren’t you taking the stairs?” or “Why do you have a handicapped parking space?” (Young, 2013).

Universal Design
To round out these specific recommendations, the following tips can be utilized when working with clients with any disability:

  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations, idioms, and sarcasm. Be clear and direct, as these nuanced communication styles may make it more difficult for clients to understand your advice and intentions.
  • Avoid emotionally-charged descriptions and euphemisms. Phrases that depict a disability in a negative light, such as “troubled” or “crippled,” can be offensive. Similarly, euphemisms such as “dif-abilities” or “differently-abled,” while well-meaning, can reinforce the notion that disabilities cannot be discussed in a clear, straightforward manner. Again, clear and direct communication is best.
  • Provide materials electronically and in writing. Send your client detailed notes of your meeting and clear instructions for their next steps, when possible. Emails have the advantage of being accessible to speech-to-text and speech-reading software. If you host workshops or create webinars a student or client may want to review, making recorded presentation materials available in both audio-only and written transcript formats provides greatest accessibility.
  • Utilize referrals. Develop relationships with community-providers for mental health services, vocational rehabilitation for ease of referral. Create a list of disability-specific resources, such as AskJan.org, to support clients with their career goals.

Counselors in all settings can expect to assist clients with both apparent and non-apparent disabilities, as the disability population in the U.S. continues to grow. However, a few small adjustments and thoughtful techniques can make the career counseling process more inclusive and productive for both counselor and client.

Brault, M. W. (2012). Americans with disabilities: Household economic studies. Current Population Reports. Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p70-131.pdf

Centers for Disease Control. (26 Feb 2015). Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html

Cortiella, C., & Horowitz, S. H. (2014). The state of learning disabilities. Facts, trends, and emerging issues, 3rd ed. New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Hernandez, M. (2011). People with apparent and non-apparent physical disabilities: Well-being, acceptance, disclosure, and stigma. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. Publication number 3552148.

Triano, S. (2004). I’ll believe it when I see it: People with non-apparent disabilities living in-between the able/disabled divide. Equity E-Newsletter. Retrieved from World Institute on Disability

Young, R. (2013). Advisor knowledge of disability-related needs, laws, and accommodation requirements in postsecondary academic advisement practices. (Doctoral dissertation). Dissertation Archive. Paper 4050.


Janine RoweJanine M. Rowe, MSEd., NCC, is a career counselor and Assistant Director of Disability Services at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. In addition to providing developmental career counseling, she provides education and advocacy for students with disabilities and consults with employers hiring individuals with disabilities. Janine can be reached at jmroce@rit.edu.

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Lashay Taylor   on Wednesday 09/02/2015 at 04:53 PM

Nicely written and insightful article Janine. Thank you so much for sharing this much needed information.

Jessica Ayub, LPC, GCDF   on Thursday 09/03/2015 at 02:14 PM

Much needed information for all of us. Thank you, Janine! In Minnesota, we've had a couple initiatives I would recommend. A consortium association for public and private colleges (MCUCSA) arranged for a quarterly meeting where career center staff were trained in tailoring services by a local premier agency specializing in work with people who had Autism diagnoses. Also, after working closely with my insitutions' Student Accessibility Services staff in individual career services with students and alumni who had Autism diagnoses, we partnered with Counseling Services to have all three of our offices create a social-skills training and support job club for students and alumni. Due to ADA confidentiality, we found the Doctorate Interns who had career counseling skills were best suited to hold the group, who were invited by Accessibility Services to participate.

Janine Rowe   on Friday 09/04/2015 at 08:24 AM

Thank you for reading, Lashay!

Janine Rowe   on Friday 09/04/2015 at 08:27 AM

Jessica, sounds like you have found a collaborative and replicable model that works for both students and staff. I would love to hear more about your training processes.

Tina Anctil, PhD., CRC, LPC   on Saturday 09/05/2015 at 10:40 AM

Thank you for sharing this important article. The information is excellent. Well done!

Jessica Ayub, LPC, GCDF   on Saturday 09/05/2015 at 05:35 PM

Janine, about the group collaborationin higher education, this took place in early 2013. As I was in Career Services and under supervision for counseling licensure, we worked with students from that perspective in this distinct office space. I am familiar with the initial ideas prior to the Counseling Doctoral Interns running the actual groups. Targeted with students/alumni with Autism and traumatic brain injury participants, the proposed job clubs involved 8-week modules at no cost and no credit. Individual meeting mandatory prior to group participation to build therapeutic relationship, the group time was designed as fun, social skills-based role plays and activities with reflection with one Accessibility staff member and the Career Counselor. The original interventions proposed were based on skills books by Marsha Linehan (1993) and McKay, Wood, and Brantley (2007). However, I am not certain how the final curriculum was finalized and implemented in the Counseling office. Hope this helps! Janine and everyone, thank you for this important topic and the input.

Eryn Loney   on Monday 09/07/2015 at 03:02 PM

Great article, Janine! Thank you for addressing this topic. Very good points.

Janine Rowe   on Monday 09/07/2015 at 08:45 PM

Thank you Tina and Eryn!

Marshel Pollock-Lawrence   on Thursday 04/20/2017 at 04:22 PM

This article touches me because I have parents with disabilities and we as humans are so quick to judge without knowing a person's situation. It touches reality and what barriers people with different kinds of disabilities face while trying to gain employment or seek help from a career counselor. Disclosing personal information is not always easy for fear people will judge you or teat you different.

Janine Rowe   on Sunday 04/23/2017 at 01:22 PM

Thank you for your comment, Marshel. I do think that many continue to fear discrimination and stigma, which makes people with disabilities less likely to share information about their disability unless it is absolutely necessary.

Mike Martin   on Tuesday 04/19/2022 at 12:30 AM

My 21 year old son has learning disabilities associated with low processing speeds. Wondering if you can provide direction on resources to help adults with learning disabilities transition to careers?

Any help / direction is appreciated


Janine Rowe   on Monday 04/25/2022 at 08:12 AM

Hi Mike, thank you for your question! I suggest reviewing the resource list for job seekers with disabilities from NCDA: https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sp/resources, and your state's vocational rehabilitation office is also a great resource for adults with disabilities.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.