“I didn’t identify as disabled as such during university,” a graduate told us during The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023, recalling the support and flexibility she had as a research student. “It’s only now in the workplace that I feel disabled.”
This was an experience common to many disabled students reaching the end of their degrees. Graduating and entering the graduate jobs market meant a hard stop to all the adjustments and support that existed at university, and the start of a far more uncertain and difficult journey into employment.
Our research, based on the responses of 99 recent graduates with disabilities, highlighted how drastic the transition from education to work could be for disabled graduates.
The picture was starkest with adjustments. The most common adjustments students had at university tended to become the least common for those in work.
In the most extreme example, the most common adjustment at university, which was extra time for assignments (98% of students), became the least common adjustment people reporting having at work (13% of employees). The second most common adjustment students reported having at university – access to a support worker – likewise became the second least common at work, a fall from 88% of students to 24% of employees. Access to interpreters and assistive IT technology likewise tended to decline steeply in the transition from study to work.
The opposite was true of less common adjustments at university, like alterations to one’s immediate work environment, ergonomic equipment, and flexible working – these became some of the most common for those in work.
But the difference goes beyond types of adjustments. We often hear that the structure for supporting students with disabilities and conditions is fundamentally different to that in workplaces. They are provided by two separate, and entirely disconnected, sources: Disabled Student’s Allowance and Access To Work. There is no overlap or communication between the two. Moving from one to the other means restarting an adjustments journey from the beginning. For graduates, the support they are used to disappears and they have to replace it – while doing their first graduate jobs. To make matters worse, Access to Work is under-resourced and it can take months for support to be put in place once someone enters work.
The other factor is that the types of adjustments possible at university do not always translate to workplaces. In some cases, this is impossible: the adjustment of extra time doesn’t work for organisations who work to strict, immovable deadlines for example.
Part of the problem is that universities don’t prepare students for this new reality: 57 per cent did not feel their university prepared them at all well for talking about their disability and discussing adjustments with a potential employer.
Or, in one graduate’s words: “At university, support was thrown at me. In my job, it has to be tracked down. As a student I could access mental health support easily. However, there was nowhere to go from here on leaving.”
For many disabled students, then, graduation is a sharp upheaval, where talking about one’s needs and securing the right support becomes much harder. Sometimes, it becomes so much harder that it forces people to re-evaluate their sense of identity, as in the case of the person we quoted at the beginning of this article. Someone who doesn’t see themselves as disabled because they can do things in the way that suits them abruptly becomes disabled when that supportive environment disappears.
So what needs to be done to make the transition between education and work more manageable in terms of adjustments?
You can find our full list of recommendations for employers on our Policy Hub, which extend beyond the nature of adjustments. But a key role for employers and universities alike is making disabled students aware of the adjustments available that might be available to them in the workplace – including, crucially, how these might be different compared to those they have now.
More widely, we need to see far more communication between Disabled Student’s Allowance and Access to Work, to eliminate the ‘drop off’ and long waits graduates experience.
We have also proposed the Technology For Life model, which would see people able to have continuous access to assistive technology without the need to reapply after the transition from education to work.
Look out for more blogs from us on the findings from The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023 over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can read about the findings from both the main survey and the graduate survey online.
About the research
The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023 was conducted by Business Disability Forum and sponsored by Microlink. It examines the experiences of nearly 1,500 disabled employees and 400 managers around workplace adjustments and inclusion. The findings from disabled graduates are based on a survey of 99 disabled graduates who left university and started work in the last 5 years.