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Interplay between the quality of post-secondary education and work for students with disabilities

By Dr. Cameron Crawford, Ph.D. - Senior Data and Policy Officer

I've been fortunate to do quite a lot of research on disability and employment and on inclusive education over the years. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first major research project to look at the relationship between the quality of postsecondary education (PSE) that students with disabilities receive and the quality of employment they obtain. The project draws from diverse sources, including a comprehensive review of scholarly and “grey” literature, in-depth statistical analysis using the Canadian Survey on Disability, analysis based on a brief online survey we designed that asks PSE students with disabilities about their postsecondary experiences and employment, and a series of dialogues engaging knowledgeable people on how to improve the postsecondary experiences and quality of work of young adults with disabilities.


Quite a bit of research has been conducted on postsecondary education and disability. But it tends to look at issues largely in isolation from one another and not in terms of an overall picture of the quality of PSE that students with disabilities experience.


On the statistical front, our method combines numerous lines of enquiry into a unified approach. It includes the extent to which PSE students obtain the curricular, instructional, technological, and human supports they require for disability, and the accessibility of built PSE school environments. It also considers the extent to which students must take on additional costs because of disability, whether they have been socially isolated or bullied in PSE, and whether they graduate from programs where there are lots of graduates or from fields where the numbers are lower but whose knowledge and skills are in high demand in the labour market. The model rolls all these considerations up into a simple, overall way of assessing the quality of PSE that students with disabilities experience – whether it’s high-quality, low-quality, or somewhere in between.


The employment of people with disabilities is an area where there’s an ever-growing mountain of research! Yet, only scant attention has been paid to the overall quality of work that people with disabilities obtain, except that too often the work is precarious, low-paid, and in service-sector jobs. But that isn’t the end of the story because many people with disabilities do secure very good jobs.


The International Labour Organization (ILO) has formulated a model of “decent work”, which we have adapted and applied in the statistical analysis to many realities that people with disabilities experience in employment. The model includes measures that are relevant to workers with and without disabilities. These include whether the work is short-term and precarious or longer-term and reasonably secure, the adequacy of pay, and whether a person’s hours of work are reasonable. The model considers the extent to which a person’s job represents their equitable distribution across various occupations and industries or is in a gendered and disability-concentrated “job ghetto”. Our model also factors in the availability of professional development from the employer, the safety of work, and several other important issues.


Along with all those general factors, the statistical component of the project includes several factors that are specific to disability. These include whether part-time work is the preferred mode or the only mode of work available, whether the employer has been discriminatory based on disability, and the extent to which various disability-related supports for full inclusion and productivity are in place (e.g., on-the-job human support, adaptive technologies, and modified job duties). This also includes whether built environmental features are in place which also contribute to general workplace safety, and several other important disability-specific aspects of work. The extent to which positive features are present in a job will largely determine whether it is of good quality, of poor quality, or somewhere in between. Again, the statistical research for the project combines many factors into a straightforward and intuitively meaningful way of thinking about the quality of work people hold.


Whether PSE and work are high-quality or low-quality plays out quite differently depending on whether a person is male or female, racialized, Indigenous, or white, has a mobility impairment or a learning disability or a psychosocial disability, or perhaps all three types of disability, where they live, and so on. This project breaks new ground by looking at many of these interactions and at how PSE factors then contribute to employment paths and outcomes. It’s been both fascinating and a privilege to be engaged in this kind of statistical research.


There have been a few surprising and not-so-surprising findings in this aspect of the project. Not too surprisingly, students who obtain high-quality of PSE are generally more likely to find high-quality versus low-quality jobs. However, the relationship between PSE and work isn’t entirely straightforward. For instance, some students with disabilities, may start out okay in PSE with relatively good financial and other forms of access to it, but may not experience high-quality PSE along the way and may not graduate. So, the relationship between PSE and work depends to some extent on who we’re talking about and which aspects of PSE we look at when exploring the likelihood of a student with disabilities participating in low, medium, or high-quality paid work. Regardless of the details within the PSE process, however, those who don’t graduate are less likely to have any job, let alone a good-quality one.


So, this project and the statistical component of it are exploring a complex interplay of issues. The research is bringing to the foreground several key predictors of high-quality versus low-quality work that universities and colleges have some control over. These are specific practices in PSE that seem to be working well for various groups, and practices that aren't in place or working very well for other groups. In turn, universities and colleges can use the findings to pinpoint positive practices that could be scaled up to increase the chances of good-quality PSE and positive employment outcomes for a broader range of students.


Fact sheets and other documents we are generating are drawing attention to specific issues that we think warrant attention. I really do hope this project will contribute to better PSE and better employment outcomes for students with disabilities, who for too long have faced major barriers in PSE, and then too often have been shunted aside from the labour market or marginalized within it. This research is practical and realistic: it points to positive outcomes in PSE and employment that are happening now, and which can be scaled up and made more widely available.

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