For Co-op practitioners, students with disabilities can present a difficult challenge in understanding how to prepare students for Co-op, arranging necessary on-the-job accommodations, and communicating with employers.
Student intake and pre-employment preparation
It is important for a Co-op practitioner to be aware that there are various forms and types of disabilities. Some are obvious and some are hidden. Disabilities can include physical disabilities such as Multiple Sclerosis, paralysis or conditions that cause a person to use a wheelchair; sensory disabilities such as visual and hearing impairments; and finally hidden disabilities such as learning impairments, mental illness, heart conditions, etc. Most notable for Co-op practitioners are any conditions that may pose a barrier to employment for students. Often students will have more than one form or type of disability. Students should be encouraged to discuss their disability with you and any resulting special needs they may have.
Often, students with disabilities will have had limited opportunities to develop prior work or volunteer experience. In many cases, these students may require additional pre-employment coaching in areas such as professionalism. Further, it is important to obtain the student’s consent to discuss their disability with a potential employer. It is common courtesy prior to an interview to inform the employer about the student’s disability and special interview arrangements. For example, you could mention that the student uses a wheelchair and would require an accessible interview location. Similarly, in preparing students with disabilities for Co-op work terms it is important to stress that students must be willing to openly discuss their respective disability with a potential employer.
Necessary on-the-job accommodations
While most students with disabilities require minimal changes to the workplace in order to accommodate their disability, some will need special preparations in order to work to their top potential. It may be necessary to work with disability services on campus to gain access to specialized equipment. In most cases, job accommodation strategies include limited changes such as a rearrangement of workplace furnishings, the design of a more flexible work schedule, etc. Where possible, the onus should be on the student to inform both the Co-op program and the employer about any necessary accommodations.
In most cases, employers are unaware of the unique needs of a students and their respective disability. However, employers are not averse to hiring students with a disability. The onus must be placed on the students to be able to clearly articulate and explain to a potential employer the nature of their disability, how it might affect their job, and any necessary accommodations. When coaching students with disabilities, suggest that they make a commitment to diplomatically educate and inform potential employers about their respective disability, how it may affect their ability to perform the tasks of the job, and how the disability can be accommodated. Moreover, ensure that a misunderstanding does not occur between the employer and the student.