Research indicates that Australian university students with disabilities are 7 percent more likely to be unemployed and 6 percent more likely to be in work that does not use their skills or education compared to students without disabilities.
“In addition, students with disabilities also make up only 2 percent of participants in employers’ graduate programs, which are important employment pathways,” adds David Eckstein, 2020 National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education Equity Fellow at Swinburne University of Technology.
“Targeted efforts across the higher education sector are needed to address this inequity.”
To assist in this shift, Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, created the AccessAbility Careers Hub (AACH), which provides targeted career education for students with disabilities.
The goals of the AACH initiative are to:
- Provide an individually tailored and inclusive experience for students with disabilities to help them develop the career management skills required to find work that is relevant to their studies. Eckstein explains that the program helps students learn how to deal with the imposed notions of their disability, navigate systemic barriers in recruitment processes, and identify their individual employability value and align this with specific employer needs.
- Educate employers by providing inclusive practice information and connecting less experienced employers with “disability-confident” organizations.
“We also wanted to make a successful model that could be replicated by other universities,” Eckstein adds.
He explains that the AACH has four pillars:
- AACH operates from Swinburne University’s career services office, but works in close collaboration with the university’s disability support service, areas that traditionally operate as separate domains in Australia’s higher education sector. This partnership provides a source of cross-referral of students between services.
- AACH hosts the disability employment agency WISE Employment, which works on campus and provides students with access to its network of disability-confident employers. WISE Employment’s GradWISE program uses existing government funding to cover some of the costs. The company also provides work pro-bono so neither Swinburne University nor its students incur cost for the service. Students apply through WISE networks for casual and part-time roles that provide strategic engagement with work during their studies. This prepares students for their eventual transition to the workforce after graduation.
- A tiered model of career education offerings support this work, from individual counselling to group activities and online resources. A student community of practice supports students’ involvement in the refinement of existing programs and the creation of new ones. An example of a new program is AACH’s Expo and Panel Discussion. This event involved the participation of 18 organizations from the government, private, and nonprofit sectors and culminated in employers and students working together in the panel discussion to identify barriers to effective inclusion in the workplace and solutions to those issues.
- Employer “disability confidence” is supported by providing them with best practice presentations, online information, and opportunities for on-campus collaboration.
A total of 240 students with disabilities and 24 employers participate in AACH activities. Among the participating students:
- Forty have used AACH to find work that is relevant to their studies;
- Twenty-three have found internships and placements;
- Ten have established mentoring relationships with employers; and
- Six have found volunteering opportunities.
“In addition,” Eckstein notes, “students with disability at other universities have found work, thanks to Swinburne sharing information with them about the AACH model.”
“Students also report that AACH has developed awareness of their employability value, their career management skills, and the capacity to better engage with their career management responsibility.”
He adds that AACH’s events have provided a safe place for participating employers to explore disability recruitment issues and meet students. Swinburne has shared Hub operational information with RMIT University, Monash University, and the Australian National University, which has helped them replicate the program.
AACH’s replicable model has been recognized with careers industry awards and Eckstein has been appointed 2020 Equity Fellow at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. This Fellowship project aims to promote AACH’s purpose by adding disability to the national conversation about graduate employment. It will do this by identifying best practice initiatives and developing open access tools for all universities to use.
“These significant outcomes represent strong validation of Swinburne’s decision to implement the AccessAbility Careers Hub as an 18-month pilot project from mid-2018,” Eckstein says.
“Swinburne University has directed a further tranche of equity funds so that the program can be consolidated in 2020, while plans to operationalize [AACH] from recurrent funding are formulated.”
There are several elements of the AACH program that Eckstein believes have contributed to its success. First, buy-in from all levels of the institution and its enabling culture were critical.
“In addition, Swinburne’s partnership with GradWISE benefits staff in both organizations, in addition to our students,” he continues.
“It helps us make the most of existing employer partnerships and adds new ones for both of us. Also cooperation between universities creates a large pool of disability talent. This creates scope for career development opportunities with employers that would not otherwise be possible.”
Eckstein says that initiatives such as AACH need to account for the operational realities of local context.
“Regional universities and universities of different sizes present particular challenges,” he says, “but pooling university resources and supporting employer engagement can create opportunities.”