Resources for Hiring Students with Disabilities

cosd employer blog

Are you including students and recent grads with disabilities in your recruiting efforts? If you’re worried about how this might have a negative impact on your company, you’re not alone. Be sure to check out guest post by Alan Muir, Founding Executive Director of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD). Alan outlines—and disproves—some common myths about hiring students with disabilities.

COSD works to facilitate career opportunities for students with disabilities and to promote cooperation between career services and other offices on campus that support these students.

We caught up with Alan to discuss how you can commit to hiring students with disabilities and what resources and examples are out there to help you with this endeavor.

What is Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD)?

COSD is a national association of more than 700 colleges and universities, along with more than 600 major employers, all focused on reducing the career unemployment rate of college graduates with disabilities, which currently stands at 46%.

COSD grew out of research conducted by myself and Dr. Robert Greenberg, the then director of career services at the University of Tennessee, to identify the best methods of integrating college students with disabilities into the career search process through the career services office.

Historically, there has been a very significant disconnect between disability services (the office on campus that certifies and implements required academic accommodations for students with disabilities to compete in the classroom) and career services (which serves all students and alumni seeking internships or other work during college and full-time career employment upon graduation).

We established our own method by creating the Disability Careers Office (DCO) at the University of Tennessee. The DCO is a liaison office that operates between disability services and career services and is designed to assist current UT students and alumni with disabilities to learn about the basics of major selection, career goals, and assessments in a comfortable environment for the student to be open about their disability and any limitations.

What are some of COSD’s main services and products?

Some of the products and services COSD provides are as follows:

COSD 15th Annual National Conference (November 20, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): A professionals’ conference that brings together approximately 150 higher education personnel, representing disability services and career services, and campus recruiters, Diversity & Inclusion, EO, hiring managers, and HR administrators from employers to meet for one day to discuss the latest issues surrounding the career employment of college graduates with disabilities.

We have expert speakers on veterans’ issues, government regulation, specific disabilities such as psychiatric, autism spectrum disorders, and Attention Deficit Disorder, as well as best practices panels from employers and higher education. It is a full immersion into the issues, culture, and knowledge of the disability community.

FULL ACCESS Student Summit: Every April and November, COSD recruits up to 60 current college students and recent graduates from specific regions of the US to meet with either 10 or 11 major employers for two half-days of networking over a Friday and Saturday.

The purpose of the Student Summit is to provide a comfortable and safe environment for both the employers and the students to get to know each other and be able to learn from each other.

The Student Summit is not billed as a hiring event, but simply as a pipeline-building opportunity for employers and a laboratory for students to work on self-advocacy and articulating their own abilities and interests without the concern of disclosing a disability.

All students at the Student Summit have a disability and are, therefore, on a level playing field. We do not want to have the students be anxious or feel they will be on a 24-hour job interview. We also want to reassure the employers that there is no pressure to have a job opening or to feel they need to hire someone on the spot.

However, we have had great success in employment outcomes with more than 7 full-time jobs and over 20 internships offered and accepted in the last 3 years. We have conducted 12 Student Summits across the country.

In the most recent Student Summit in April of 2014 in Fort Worth, one employer hired five interns at the event for summer experiences in Las Vegas. Our next three Student Summits will be: November 21–22, 2014 in Philadelphia, early April 2015 in Atlanta, and early November 2015 in Chicago.

COSD Employer Community: An employers’ only forum that is conducted immediately prior to each FULL ACCESS Student Summit, in which an in-depth discussion occurs about specific recruiting, outreach, and retention topics in the area of college students and recent graduates with disabilities.

For the most recent two of these events, we have focused on the changes to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that affects all private sector employers with more than $50,000 in aggregate contracts for goods and services to the Federal government.

COSD Career Gateway: Our online job board that is specifically focused on current college students and recent graduates with disabilities. With about 700 small, medium, and large size companies on the site, there are approximately 100 jobs posted on any given day.

The list continues to grow. COSD Career Gateway operates on the Experience platform and is free to all students and recent alumni for completing a profile and posting a résumé.

Employers also have free access to register their corporate profile and post jobs. To access COSD Career Gateway, please go to and look for the Career Gateway logo.

The COSD website mentions that in its early stages, COSD identified two of the challenges of hiring students with disabilities: employers didn’t know where to find the students and when they did find them, the students were not qualified. How does COSD help to overcome these challenges?

This is accomplished through a two-prong simultaneous approach that is continually ongoing. With higher education, we consistently point to the success of the DCO at UT as an example of how collaboration positively impacts students with disabilities.

This is designed to push the two offices to encourage greater participation by students and alumni with disabilities in the career development process by taking advantage of the classes and seminars given in the career services office, along with assessments; more careful selection of majors; and greater exposure to employers that come to campus for information sessions, career fairs, and on-campus recruiting.

Exposure, Experience, and Expertise are the three stages we strive for with employers as they are running their businesses and may not take notice or be aware of people with disabilities.

Therefore, making sure that they have that exposure to students with disabilities on campus or at the COSD FULL ACCESS Student Summit goes a long way toward feeling more comfortable and aware.

Experience comes with being with these students over a period of time, such as at a Student Summit, to see what these students are capable of doing.

Expertise comes from seeing the success of taking a risk and seeing a highly productive employee that the employer may not have previously taken a chance to hire.

Federal regulation changes have accelerated the process by requiring some level of attention on this population, and COSD is available to complete the process. Also, as a result of Section 503, higher education needs to be very aware of the needs, goals, and mandates for the employers and how they can be partners in this effort.

In partnership with NACE and the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), COSD has put together a three-part webcast series on Section 503 and its impacts on higher education professionals and the students with disabilities they serve.

Are there any legal considerations employers should be aware of when recruiting students with disabilities?

Yes, the biggest of these is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), and they both prohibit employment discrimination based on disability.

The ADAAA was necessary due to a number of judicial rulings that limited the definition of a disability and these definitions were restored and expanded more clearly with this series of Amendments. The ADA and ADAAA are still the primary protections for people with disabilities.

In March of 2014, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) implemented a change to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, covering requirements in the hiring of people with disabilities by private sector employers that have more than $50,000 in aggregate contracts for goods and services provided to the Federal Government.

For the first time, this regulation now has a target number of 7% representation of people with disabilities in the workforce of these employers as a goal. There are a number of milestones and steps that companies need to report on to OFCCP, including plans to outreach to the disability community, source candidates through many avenues, and to collect data through inviting applicants to Self-ID that they have or do not have a disability with a simple form that is given to every candidate.

The purpose of this invitation is to capture data of how diverse the candidate pool is and to track how that diversity translates into hires for that company. Additionally, these federal contractors are required to survey their current employees with the same Self-ID form at a minimum of five-year intervals, once again to capture the number of employees with disabilities in the workforce and determine their progress toward the 7% goal.

An exemption from the ADA and ADAAA was received to allow these federal contractors to invite that Self-ID. It should be noted that Self-ID is not disclosure of a disability for the purposes of receiving a workplace accommodation and does not require any further documentation beyond the Self-ID form. For more information, please go to the OFCCP website at

What are some companies that have exemplary diversity and inclusion programs, and what makes them so successful?

IBM and Microsoft have been pioneers since the ‘80s in this space of recruiting, hiring, accommodating, on-boarding, and retaining candidates with disabilities from college campuses.

Nordstrom is another exemplary company of providing personalized service for on-boarding of new employees with disabilities.

Others include Merck, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Cisco in the area of hiring for disability, but also with veterans with disabilities.

AT&T and Verizon represent telecommunications and have a long history of being employers of choice.

Financial institutions and related companies such as Bank of America, PNC Bank, EY, KPMG, PwC, and TD Bank have all been in the forefront of recruitment of college graduates with disabilities.

Walmart, Walgreens, Target, and TJ Maxx have been at the top end of retail, as well.

There are many others, but what separates these companies is the culture and the integration of disability knowledge and experience into the workplace to the point where disability is a part of doing business.

Those recruiters who have not had exposure or experience to people with disabilities are trained and placed in situations where they will encounter potential candidates with disabilities, such as at the COSD FULL ACCESS Student Summits.

Also, there is a top-down understanding of the need for this, well before the mandate was implemented for many of these companies who are federal contractors.

Culture and making it a part of the “way we do business” are the keys to success in this space for companies looking to successfully hire qualified candidates with disabilities.

The next step: Check out some of COSD’s resources and see which ones make the most sense for your university recruiting team. Also, take a look at some of the companies that Alan suggests are industry leaders when it comes to recruiting students with disabilities. What aspects of their recruiting and hiring practices can you implement at your organization?


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