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Employment Counselling for People With Disabilities and Disorders

Attitudes toward hiring people with disabilities and disorders are changing, yet many employers still hold inaccurate beliefs. For example, they may think people with disabilities cannot be effective at work or that supporting them will be expensive. In some cases, clients may internalize those perceptions. But with an aging population and a growing labour shortage, there has never been a better time for people with disabilities to demonstrate their worth.

You need to understand your clients’ abilities and adaptations so you can advocate with employers, service providers, support networks, and the clients themselves.

This article discusses general employment counselling for people with disabilities. Additional employment counselling advice is available to support clients with specific developmental and learning disorders, as well as specific mental health disorders and physical or neurological conditions.

Addressing clients’ financial concerns

Some clients with disabilities may receive income from income support systems, such as a pension plan, a long-term disability pension, or government income support. People with disabilities who receive income from these sources may have the qualifications and the desire to work, but may fear jeopardizing their benefits if they take a full-time job. Clients may be especially concerned about losing health benefits. Some may also fear they will have trouble reinstating benefits if the job does not last.

People who receive financial assistance in Alberta are encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible, which usually means being employed. Those who are working while receiving financial assistance may receive a supplement to their earnings. In other words, a portion of their wages may be exempt when their benefits are calculated. In Alberta, people leaving financial assistance for jobs may continue to receive health benefits both for themselves and for their children.

So, while losing health benefits may still be a concern for clients, it may not be a reality. Become familiar with details of relevant financial assistance programs and help clients get more information about income exemptions and health coverage.

Helping clients with work search

Research and preparation

Finding role models

“People with disabilities know other people with disabilities. Is there anybody in their community or social network who is working and doing really well? Help people find role models. Help them learn different ways to manage their lives by thinking about things like ‘What’s my backup plan when something unforeseen happens’?”

—Audrey Stechynsky, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

The right work for all clients is work that relates to their preferred futures and allows them to maximize their potential. Clients need to understand all aspects of the job they are considering. Encourage them to obtain written job descriptions and then to:

  • Analyze the tasks involved
  • Identify how their skills and strengths will be assets in the position
  • Anticipate possible challenges
  • Identify strategies for addressing challenges, such as how they will handle a job that requires typing, writing, driving, speed, or memorization

Clients also need to research the working environment. Someone with visual motor problems might be uncomfortable working in a cluttered area. A person with an auditory perceptual problem may choose to avoid situations with a lot of background noise. Clients need to find environments that allow them to succeed.

Encourage clients to learn about government agencies and corporations that do business with the prospective employers. Employers with government contracts are usually required to practice employment equity.

Clients should also find out as much as possible about organizations they are considering for employment. Suggest that clients use an informational interview or reach out to their network to determine if the organization has hired employees with disabilities before or if there is a high staff turnover. Clients can also ask the employer these questions in a job interview.

Looking for work

What Jobs are Available to Someone With a Disability? (2:26)

Resumé, letter-writing, and interview skills are vital to anyone seeking employment. However, job search for clients with disabilities demands much more. Their search requires imagination and ingenuity to create possibilities in the job market. It also requires finding ways to allow the employer to see the client as a unique individual with a range of abilities.

Clients will need:

  • Job search skills
  • Networking skills
  • Negotiating skills
  • Knowledge of how to identify and access the hidden job market

Learning to negotiate is essential for clients. It empowers them to feel comfortable asking for what they need to succeed in the job, including:

  • A training period
  • Work experience or a probationary period
  • Optional tasks
  • Job accommodations or assistive technology

Since the hidden job market is the source of so many work opportunities, knowing how to tap into it is vital.

Reframing negative attitudes

Clients may need help to reframe the negatives of job search, with its rejections, stress, and self-doubt, into positive experiences and ideas. For example, help your clients:

  • Reframe the idea that “Employers don’t want to hire someone with a disability” as “Employers need qualified I’m qualified.”
  • Reframe the idea that “Employers won’t want to accommodate my needs” as “Employers are eager to attract and accommodate all workers who can add value to the organization.”
  • Reframe the idea that “Any employer who hires me will only do so because of tokenism, public relations, equity legislation, or a temporary labour shortage” as “Once I’m on the job, I have the skills to prove that hiring me was the right decision.”

Disclosure to employers

The desire to blend in

“Learning about and using self-advocacy skills can be a catalyst to understanding who you are as a person with a disability. At the heart of it, for people with invisible disabilities especially, is the desire to blend in.”

—Dr. Patricia Pardo, Mount Royal University

Sharing disability-related challenges in the workplace is a valid and significant concern for clients. Clients must deal with each situation as it arises. You may want to help the client do a risk analysis to determine the pros and cons of any decision.

For example, clients may be concerned about the risk of stigma in the workplace—that employers or coworkers who know about their disability might feel uncomfortable or treat them differently. They may be concerned that disclosure will limit job prospects or advancement opportunities due to misconceptions, stereotypes, or generalizations. They may worry that they will be offered a token position to fill an employment equity target. They want to be hired for their abilities, not their disabilities.

Some clients with disabilities have no choice but to disclose to pass employment entrance tests, complete job advancement courses, or complete assigned work within narrowly established parameters. Many could perform more efficiently on the job if they could arrange for some simple accommodations, such as a quieter workspace, access to computer software, or instructions in alternative formats.

Ultimately, the choice to disclose rests with the client, who must evaluate each situation. This evaluation will include factors such as:

  • Personal needs
  • Job descriptions
  • Possible accommodations required during or after the selection process
  • The organization’s sensitization to disability issues

Clients must ask themselves not just whether to tell, but whether there could be consequences for not telling. Can the client do the job without accommodations? If not, the client (or the parent, guardian, or advocate) needs to consider:

  • How severe is the disability?
  • How much does the nature or manifestation of the disability conflict with the needs of the job?
  • How open is the employer to recognizing and accommodating the client?
  • If there is a union in the workplace, what is its position toward and willingness to support members with disabilities?

Clients who need accommodations on the job must disclose. But talking about a disability in an interview or on an application form can shift the focus of the conversation from a person’s abilities to their disability.

Clients may find it useful to consider the following suggestions for disclosing information to prospective employers:

  • Avoid medical terms but describe how the disability and any adaptations relate to the tasks you’ll be doing. For example, “I have difficulty following written instructions but no trouble at all following verbal directions.”
  • Have a current assessment of your disabilities, along with recommendations of how the employer may accommodate them on the job.
  • Know and state your strengths.
  • Know your needs in relation to the job.
  • Look for support and networking opportunities in the workplace.
  • Understand the role of the union, if applicable.
  • Have confidence that it is completely reasonable to ask for accommodations.

Disclosing a disability requires thought and planning. Clients should carefully plan how to disclose and know the implications. They may want to reveal a little bit of information at a time to establish a level of comfort and trust. Ultimately, they must decide the time, the place, and the amount of information to share with others.

Use the following activities to help clients prepare for potential disclosure in a job interview:

  • Discuss whether they plan to disclose their disability at interviews.
  • If so, help them practise talking about their disability.
  • Suggest positive ways for them to describe the impact of their disability.
  • Role-play job interviews with them, using recording devices if possible.

Job accommodations

Job accommodations are reasonable modifications, adjustments, and equipment acquisitions employers make to accommodate employees with disabilities. Accommodation can include providing technical aids or making changes to the workplace environment, procedures, employment practices, communications, or training.

Accommodations can mean the difference between success and lack of success at work. They are an important part of making sure that workplace policies, procedures, and environments don’t negatively affect employees with disabilities.

Disability Related Employment Supports (DRES) from the Government of Alberta may be available to assist qualified clients with documented and permanent or long-term disabilities. DRES funding pays for supports or services to reduce, alleviate, or remove barriers for education, training, job search, or employment. Examples include assistive technologies, installations or worksite modifications, sign language interpreters, and specific disability-related software.

See Working With Employers to Recruit and Retain People With Disabilities and Disorders for a list of common job accommodations that can be helpful for people with disabilities. You can also find more targeted accommodation lists for people with developmental and learning disorders as well as people with mental health and physio-neural disorders.

Assistive technologies

New technologies

“Assistive or adaptive technology is changing the opportunities for people to be employed. For example, screen readers for blind and partially sighted people, voice recognition technology, and so on. In addition, there are more opportunities now to refer clients with disabilities for assessments for adaptive technology.”

—Patricia Sears, Specialized Support and Disability Services, University of Alberta

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada defines assistive technology as any piece of technology that helps people increase or maintain their level of functioning.

People with disabilities often have difficulty with skills that others take for granted. Assistive technology can help with reading, listening, organizing information, or writing. Devices may be high-tech, using sophisticated artificial intelligence capabilities, or low-tech, such as sticky notes, chart systems, calendars, and checklists.

Clients who have trouble writing and editing by hand might use a computer with a good word processor that includes spelling, grammar, and style checkers. Web-based writing aids like Grammarly can also be helpful. So can personal assistance with editing, proofreading, or taking notes. Computers provide visual clarity and sometimes audio functions or voice recognition software. The tactile and verbal experiences of typing and speaking aloud offer a multisensory dimension that helps many adults with disabilities.

Technology can also help with:

  • Reading difficulties, using recorded instructions, lectures, and books, as well as reader services and digital page scanners with speech ability to read back the scanned pages
  • Organizational difficulties, using electronic date books or day planners
  • Mathematical difficulties, using calculators, graph paper, or a sample list of steps to follow
  • Test preparation, using flash cards and interactive quizzes

Client self-assessment of employment skills

Reviewing this job maintenance checklist may help clients with disabilities. If appropriate, make a copy for the client.

  • Look neat and clean. Dress simply, the way others dress for the same job.
  • Be on time, both arriving and leaving. Take only the time you are given for breaks.
  • If you can’t go to work, call. Your boss needs to know if you can’t be there so someone else can do your work that day.
  • Do the work that has to be done. Every job includes tasks that are not much fun.
  • Be prepared to spend extra time learning the job. If you are slower, be willing to take extra time to finish your share of the work.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Other employees and supervisors may act impatient but asking for help is better than making errors.
  • On the other hand, don’t ask for help when you don’t need it.
  • Take advantage of the honeymoon period—the first few days on the job when everyone expects you to ask questions. Ask people if they will watch you and tell you if you are doing the job correctly. Repeat the information they give you. Say, “Please listen to me tell you so I can be sure I understand.” Don’t let them interrupt and tell you what to do. Be sure they are listening to you.
  • Don’t use a disability as an excuse for not doing your best, not getting along with others, not controlling your behaviour, or refusing responsibilities that you can handle.
  • Offer to do tasks that you can handle but that are unpopular. You’ll feel more comfortable asking others for help with jobs you have trouble with.
  • Develop ways of remembering the important things. Write them down. Say them aloud when you are alone. Ask your friends to test you.
  • When you make mistakes, apologize, and correct them immediately.
  • Try hard and make the effort. Pay attention. Look everyone in the eye. Look at your work as you do it. Don’t let your eyes or mind wander. Move purposefully from place to place.
  • Discuss your disability with those who need to know about it. Make sure you also discuss the strategies you use to address the difficulties it causes.
  • Offer general information about disabilities to those who express interest.

The role of entry-level jobs

Entry-level jobs

“As long as the person is working at a real job that needs to be done, a job [chosen] from among various possibilities and that an employer is willing to pay at least minimum wage for, there’s nothing demeaning about it. The most demeaning condition is to have no job at all or to be stuck in a ‘pre-vocational’ placement. Too often, ‘pre-’ means ‘never.’”

—James McKelvey, Author, Simply for the Love of It

People with disabilities are often steered toward employment in lower-paying, entry-level jobs. For example, a client with developmental disabilities hoping to become a police officer may not be able to perform that exact job but can receive support to work in security. A similar client interested in nursing may lack the skills and knowledge to perform that job but can receive support to work in a health-care setting.

This can be a positive approach for some clients, but others may find it limiting or even damaging. Placing someone into a low-wage, unskilled job and not helping them move on can create a significant source of stress. The impoverished lifestyle that can accompany part-time, entry-level work may be more destabilizing than the stress that comes from challenging work.

This kind of mismatched placement often occurs because of concern about the client losing benefits due to a relapse or job loss. However, as long as entry-level work is not treated as an end in itself, it can be a stepping stone to a more suitable job. This progression should be built into career and employment plans so clients achieve a level of employment that matches their abilities.

Be creative and innovative when supporting clients with disabilities in pursuing their chosen fields of work. As person-centred planning approaches are implemented and supports for higher learning continue to grow, the variety and level of work available for these clients will continue to expand.

Success stories

Why not develop a roster of successfully employed people with different types of disabilities? These people will be valuable resources as:

  • Role models for other clients with disabilities
  • Sources of ideas for career options for other clients with disabilities
  • Success stories for employers who are apprehensive about hiring persons with disabilities

Successful people with disabilities acknowledge and compensate for their disabilities. They take control of their own lives and develop creative compensatory strategies. They reframe their experience of having a disability into a positive experience. This positive attitude allows them to make important and valued contributions in the workplace.

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