Empowering Students with Hidden Disabilities to Achieve Career Success

By Amanda Ljubicic

Students with hidden disabilities are attending postsecondary institutions in increasing numbers; unfortunately, their postgraduate outlook isn’t very good. The unemployment rate for college graduates with disabilities is estimated to be about 45% (NCD, 2008). What can we do as career development professionals to better support these students and help them achieve independent career success?


Get comfortable with some of the most common disability diagnoses on college campuses today. Hidden disabilities are those we can’t see. Learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder are a few terms that may be familiar to you. Psychiatric illnesses such as Major Depressive Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Bipolar Disorder and medical conditions such as Diabetes and Krohn’s Disease are also considered hidden disabilities


The National Career Development Association (NCDA) has a great web resource for learning about disabilities. The Association for Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) also provides online resources for working with students with disabilities and a Special Interest Group (SIG) focusing specifically on career development.


Learn the law and the disclosure and accommodation options that might be available in the workplace. It is essential for students to understand their rights and responsibilities under the law. As a counselor, you can learn about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Amendments Act and Section 504 through the Office of Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP). You can also engage in comprehensive training through AHEAD’s annual conference.


Disclosing a disability in the workplace is very different from disclosing a disability in college. In college there is usually a specific office on campus with which students can connect and submit documentation. At work, students must decide to whom, when and how to disclose their disability. They can choose to disclose on their resume, before the interview, during the interview, following the job offer, on their first day, or after they experience barriers on the job. Each situation has pros and cons that must be weighed carefully by the student. Regardless, disclosure should be conducted with an emphasis on strengths and abilities, and students should share only that which is necessary to request a particular accommodation.


Students with disabilities often grow up with various support staff who help determine their academic accommodations. At work, students must become their own advocate and request the accommodations they believe they need in order to perform the essential functions of the job. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is an excellent resource for learning about job accommodations. You can clarify for students the difference between academic accommodations and workplace accommodations. For example, a student with a learning disability might get ‘time and a half’ as a testing accommodation. It’s important for students to understand that ‘time and a half’ may not be a reasonable accommodation in the workplace. A person with a disability may have to go in early, stay late or take work home to meet work deadlines.


Make sure you and your career center are accessible to students with disabilities – partner with your campus disability services office to get referrals and offer programming designed for this student population. It can be difficult to reach students with disabilities on campus due to confidentiality and privacy concerns. Partner with your disability services (DS) office. Offer to implement programming for students with disabilities and volunteer to be an automatic referral through the DS office. “Career & Disability” is a 3-part workshop I run for students each spring semester to teach students about their rights and responsibilities under the ADA. We also discuss disclosure and accommodation decisions. I advertise my workshop through the disability specialists who will often refer students to me for career counseling.


Adapt your counseling style – empathize with the disability experience. Students with disabilities experience all the same challenges as typical millennial students plus more. Students with disabilities often have low self-esteem and confidence. They seek approval from their peers and often struggle in social situations. If the disability is related to their social skills, the social barrier is even greater. Students with disabilities often have difficulty structuring their time, prioritizing events and making decisions. Sometimes students have been over supported and they have not had the opportunity to develop their own critical thinking and problem-solving skills.


Keep these characteristics in mind as you work with your students. It may take time for a student to disclose a disability to you. Assume competency to demonstrate your faith in the student, but do so with caution, keeping an eye out for any gaps in his/her skill development. Normalize the student’s strengths and weaknesses and give the student direct, concrete feedback regarding his/her behavior and professional presentation. Be open to initial contact with parents in order to establish a relationship with the student, but communicate clear boundaries for your sessions and relationship. Finally, supervise resume and cover letter writing and assist students in completing applications. This will expose much about a student’s skill level and may decrease the student’s anxiety.


Connect with federal and state resources available to college students with disabilities and share these resources with students. The following list of resources will help you support students with disabilities in their transition from school to work.


Workforce Recruitment Program

COSD Full Access

Entry Point!

Emerging Leaders



Delta Alpha Pi


Students with disabilities benefit greatly from targeted career development services because these students face truly unique barriers. Fortunately, career development professionals can implement many of these services on campus without any additional resources. Offering targeted career services begins with professional development. Expanding our knowledge about the issues and resources is what we can do as career development professionals to support and help students achieve independent career success.




Muir, A. & Helm, S. (2010) Self-Advocacy, Disclosure and Accommodations, N-the-Know Webinar.

Muir, A. & Helm, S. (2010) Disclosure – Apparent vs. Non-apparent Disabilities, N-the-Know Webinar.

Lavoie, R., Reiner, M., & Levine, M. (2005). It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success.

National Council on Disability (NCD). 2008. Keeping track: National disability status and program performance indicators.




Amanda LjubicicAmanda Ljubicic, MS, NCC is the Assistant Director of the Career Center at Mitchell College in New London, CT. Amanda also serves as President of the CT Cooperative Education and Internship Association and President-Elect of the CT Career Counseling and Development Association. Amanda creates and implements career development programming specifically for students with disabilities. She leads an Advisory Board of CT employers, career counselors and advocates to create opportunities for college students with disabilities to develop essential professional skills. Amanda can be reached at Ljubicic_a@mitchell.edu.


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1 Comment

sithembile mahlatini,EdD, LICSW   on Friday 10/07/2011 at 09:43 AM

Great article, very informative. Yes a lot of school personnel are not well equipped to assist the increasing number of students with disabilities, articles like this one are very helpful. Additional ongoing training is also required for the school personnel as well as parents.
Thank you for the information.

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