Career Services

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

(Adapted from the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Career Services.)

The number of students with disabilities entering and completing education at all levels has increased dramatically in recent years, yet people with disabilities are still underrepresented in challenging careers. Barriers to employment include inadequate support systems, little access to successful role models, lack of access to technology that can increase independence and productivity, and, most significantly, low expectations on the part of people with whom they interact.

Participation in work-based learning experiences, such as internships and cooperative education activities, can be integral to success after graduation. All students benefit from the opportunities work-based learning affords to network with potential employers, explore career options, and apply skills learned in the classroom. For students with disabilities, the benefits of work experiences may be even greater than for their nondisabled peers. Work-based learning experiences give students practice in identifying appropriate accommodations for specific situations and disclosing and discussing their disabilities as they relate to the performance of job tasks. However, students with disabilities access work-based learning programs at a lower rate than students without disabilities.

This website is designed to help career services and campus units that offer internships, cooperative education, service learning, and other work-based learning opportunities better serve students with disabilities and other underrepresented groups in their programs and work experience opportunities.

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. Educational institutions must provide equal access to programs and services, and career development programs and employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. However, employers and career development professionals are not required to initiate a discussion about appropriate accommodations. Instead, the student or employee with a disability is required to disclose his or her disability and request accommodations.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Cerebral Palsy, specific learning disabilities, Muscular Dystrophy, AIDS, head injuries, and hearing and visual impairments are some but not all of the disabilities covered by this legislation. People with conditions of the same name often have very different abilities and challenges. An accommodation is necessary only when a disability impedes the performance of a specific academic or employment task. An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation that will allow a qualified applicant or employee to perform the essential functions of the position. A qualified applicant or employee with a disability is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. Accommodations may include the provision of a sign language interpreter for job interviews, staff meetings, and training sessions; assistive technology; or a modification to the physical layout of the work site.

Educational institutions and employers are not required to make an accommodation if it causes an undue hardship. An undue hardship is an action that requires significant difficulty or expense in relation to the size of the employer, the resources available, and the nature of the operation. Rarely is an accommodation so costly that undue hardship can be claimed. Accommodations often cost less than anticipated. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a toll-free service that advises employers and employees about job accommodations, reports that 51% of all accommodations cost less than five hundred dollars.

Although inquiries about disabilities should not be made in a job interview, employers can ask applicants questions related to their ability to perform specific job functions as long as they ask similar questions of other candidates. For example, if a student is applying for an internship as a web designer, the employer may ask about her ability to meet deadlines, use computer software, and perform specific job tasks.

Career development professionals, like employers, should not ask a student if he has a disability. Even if he volunteers information related to his disability to a career counselor or work-based learning coordinator, staff should not share that information with an employer unless the student has given written permission to do so. Since potential clients may have disabilities that they do not disclose to you, it is a good idea to offer disability-related service information in brochures and websites for all students.

Universal Design

To make your career services operation accessible, employ principles of universal design. Universal design means that rather than designing your facility and services for the average user, you design them for people with a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, and other characteristics. Keep in mind that students and other visitors may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, and mobility impairments. Preparing your program to be accessible to them will make it more usable by everyone and minimize the need for special accommodations for those who use your services and for future employees as well. Make sure everyone feels welcome, and can

  • get to the facility and maneuver within it,
  • communicate effectively with support staff,
  • access printed materials and electronic resources, and
  • fully participate in events and other activities.

Train staff to support people with disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know whom they can contact if they have disability-related questions.


Many students with disabilities see internships and cooperative education experiences as optional program components that are not designed for them. To increase their participation, it may be necessary to directly market your programs to students with disabilities. The office that serves students with disabilities at your institution may be your best resource. Provide this office with copies of your informational publications so that they can assist you in recruiting students with disabilities. They may be able to pass out program information to new students during orientation meetings and intake interviews. A short introduction to your services during an orientation will alert students to the importance of participating in work-based learning experiences. The disabled student services office may also be aware of student groups that would welcome a presentation from your office staff.

Guidelines and Examples

The following questions can guide you in making your career services universally accessible. Your disabled student services office may also be able to assist you in increasing the accessibility of your unit. This content does not provide legal advice. Consult your campus legal counsel or ADA/504 compliance officer regarding relevant legal issues. Consultation with your regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can also help clarify issues.

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate services.

  • Are people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, students with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations, young and old students, and other groups represented on your staff in numbers proportional to those of the whole campus or community?
  • Do you have policies and procedures that ensure access to facilities, printed materials, computers, and electronic resources for people with disabilities?
  • Is accessibility considered in the procurement process?
  • Do you have a procedure to ensure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations?
  • Are disability-related access issues addressed in your evaluation methods?

Physical Environments and Products

Ensure physical access, comfort, and safety within an environment that is inclusive of people with a variety of abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages.

  • Are there parking areas, pathways, and entrances to the building that are wheelchair-accessible and clearly defined?
  • Are all levels of the facility connected via an accessible route of travel?
  • Are there ample high-contrast, large-print directional signs to and throughout the office?
  • Do elevators have both auditory and visual signals for floors? Are elevator controls accessible from a seated position and available in large print and Braille or raised notation?
  • Are wheelchair-accessible restrooms with well-marked signs available in or near the office?
  • Is at least part of a service counter/desk at a height accessible from a seated position?
  • Are aisles kept wide and clear for wheelchair users and protruding objects removed or minimized for the safety of users who are visually impaired?
  • Are there quiet work or meeting areas where noise and other distractions are minimized? Are facility rules in place (e.g., no cell phone use) that minimize noise?
  • Is adequate light available?
  • Are telecommunication devices for the deaf (TTY/TDD) available?

Consult the ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal for more suggestions. For computing facilities within your service unit, consult the Equal Access: Universal Design of Computer Labs video and publication.


Make sure staff are prepared to work with all students.

  • Are all staff members familiar with the availability and use of a TTY/TDD, the Telecommunications Relay Service, assistive technology, and alternate document formats?
  • Do staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations, such as sign language interpreters?
  • Do staff members have ready access to a list of on- and off-campus resources for students with disabilities?
  • Are all staff members aware of issues related to communicating with students of different characteristics such as race and ethnicity, age, and disability? (See Communication Hints).

Information Resources and Technology

If career services uses computers as information resources, ensure these systems employ accessible design, that staff members are aware of accessibility options, and systems are in place to make accommodations.

  • Do pictures in your publications and website include people with diverse characteristics with respect to race, gender, age, and disability?
  • In key publications, do you include a statement about your commitment to universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations? For example, you could include the following statement: "Our goal is to make all materials and services accessible. Please inform staff of accessibility barriers you encounter, and request accommodations that will make activities and information resources accessible to you."
  • Are all printed publications available (immediately or in a timely manner) in alternate formats such as Braille, large print, and electronic text?
  • Are key documents provided in a language(s) other than English?
  • Are printed materials within easy reach from a variety of heights and without furniture blocking access?
  • Do electronic resources, including web pages, adhere to accessibility guidelines or standards adopted by your institution or your specific project or funding source? The Section 508 Standards for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology and the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are most commonly used. For information about making your website accessible to everyone, consult the World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design video and publication.
  • Are videos used by your office captioned or audio described?
  • Do you ask vendors about accessibility features (e.g., captioned video, compatibility with assistive technology) before purchasing computers or software?
  • Is an adjustable-height table for each type of workstation to assist students who use wheelchairs or are small or large in stature?
  • Do you provide adequate work space for both left- and right-handed users?
  • Are large-print key labels available to assist students with low vision?
  • Is software to enlarge screen images and a large monitor available to assist students with low vision and learning disabilities?
  • Do you provide a trackball to be used by someone who has difficulty controlling a mouse?
  • Are staff members aware of accessibility options (e.g., enlarged text feature) included in computer operating systems and of assistive technology available in the facility?
  • Are procedures in place for a timely response to requests for assitive technology?

Note that your organization need not have special technology on hand for every type of disability but should have available assistive technology that can benefit many people. For more information about assistive technology, consult the Adaptive Technology videos and publications.


Ensure that everyone can participate in events sponsored by your organization.

  • Are events located in wheelchair-accessible facilities? Is the accessible entrance clearly marked?
  • Is information about how to request disability-related accommodations included in publications promoting events?
  • Is accessible transportation available if transportation is arranged for other participants?

The content of this web page is from Equal Access: Universal Design of Career Services. Consult that document for the most current guidelines in a checklist format and to use as a handout for a presentation or meeting.

Additional Resources

The questions on this webpage were field tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide by members of the DO-IT Admin team. The results of a nationwide survey to test face-validity of checklist items led to further refinement of the checklist. To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to

An electronic copy of the most current version of this content can be found in the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Career Services. Short videos, Equal Access: Student Services and Access to the Future: Preparing Students with Disabilities for Careers, demonstrate key points summarized in this publication. They may be freely viewed online and purchased in DVD format from DO-IT. Consult DO-IT Streaming Video Presentations with Support Publications for access to these and other videos that may be of interest.

Consult the Conference Room Knowledge Base for questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices.

The following resources also provide information about making career services accessible.

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology)
DO-IT works to increase the successful participation of people with disabilities in academic programs and careers. DO-IT uses assistive technology and the Internet to maximize independence, productivity, and participation. It provides instructional materials regarding accessible technology and the transitions from high school to college and school to work.

ENTRY POINT! American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
ENTRY POINT! is an internship program for college students with disabilities majoring in computer science, engineering, mathematics, or physical science.

Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
JAN answers questions about accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)
The U.S. Department of Labor's ODEP supports High School/High Tech, the Business Leadership Network, and other programs and provides technical assistance, resources for employers, and links to state liaisons.

Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA)
RSA oversees programs, such as state vocational rehabilitation offices, that help people with disabilities gain employment.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
The EEOC provides enforcement guidance on reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Workforce Recruitment Program
The Workforce Recruitment Program creates a database of screened candidates with disabilities seeking summer and permanent positions.