Employment Pathway Facilitators for Students with Disabilities: A Feasibility Study Conducted by the READ Initiative at Carleton University

Post-secondary students and graduates across Canada face a turbulent and ever-changing world of work. Throughout their journey of choosing a program of study, navigating the years of academic and experiential preparation, and transitioning into the world of work, students are grappling with many questions and factors that impact their path to what they hope will be meaningful, sustained employment in their field of study. For the 23% of first-year students on campuses across Canada who also identify with the lived experience of disability (CUSC, 2019), they face these questions while also integrating the unique disability-related impacts and realities associated with navigating barriers to accessibility (Kirby, D.,2009). Questions they may grapple with relate to:

  • Disclosure (how, when, where, what will be the impact)
  • Discussing accommodations
  • How to challenge myths and stereotypes 
  • Finding accessible opportunities to gain experience and build skills
  • How to manage disability-related challenges in addition to traditional challenges of student life
  • Preparation for career, and exploring, identifying, and articulating the ways they thrive and requesting what they need to mitigate some of their challenges to bring their best to the work setting.

Post-secondary plays a key role in providing students the opportunities to build their skills and readiness to transition and thrive in the world of work.  To make the greatest impact, these opportunities need to be accessible to students.  Research suggests that, for a variety of reasons, post-secondary opportunities such as Work Integrated Learning, Co-op, or Internships, and services related to employability, need to increase in accessibility and relevance for students with lived experience of disabilities (NEADS, 2018). Currently, there is not a systematic approach applied throughout post-secondary education that actively fosters the growth and opportunities for students with disabilities in the context of career preparation and development of employability skills and there is much to learn from the schools that have begun to individually implement these types of supports. Additionally, to better prepare students for employment and career success, increased innovation and collaboration is needed between Disability Service Offices (DSO), Career Service Offices (CSO), future employers, and community service providers.

As a result of these gaps, The David C. Onley Initiative (DCOI), a partnership of four post-secondary institutions in the Ottawa area, developed a collective impact strategy for making positive changes in the transition to work and employment outcomes for post-secondary students with disabilities. One element of the overall strategy is  a transferable service model, called the Employment Pathways Facilitator (EPF). The EPF model was applied and tested as a role and it additionally elaborates a set of essential functions necessary in supporting the development of employability skills for students with disabilities in higher education and promoting increased campus-wide knowledge and understanding of the interplay between accessibility, disability, and employment. The articulation of the EPF in both a singularly applicable role and as a set of functions, allows post-secondary institutions to apply best practices in a way that is meaningful to their context and flexible to their unique setting, without compromising the elements that are critical in best supporting students with disabilities. The EPF functions were tested and applied within the settings of the four partner post-secondary institutions in Ottawa which included 2 colleges and 2 universities.  With funding from Research Impact Canada (RIC) and Future Skills Centre, the researchers began assessing the extent to which the EPF role and its functions are transferable and feasible to implement for other post-secondary institutions. For this part of the study, they sought feedback from both colleges and universities to capture multiple types of post-secondary perspectives.  By including and leveraging the knowledge of RIC member institutions (which consist of Universities across Canada) in a feasibility study of the EPF role the DCOI can continue toinform the EPF model to be responsive to a diversity of settings and contexts. This will help mitigate the inherent risks in adopting a localized model across other postsecondary institutions within a unique service delivery ecosystem. To learn more about the EPF model and its proposed functions, continue reading below.

What is the EPF model?

EPF was designed, and applied, to address identified gaps that impact post-secondary students with disabilities:

  • Students with disabilities having fewer work-related experiences to point to when applying to employers
  • Few services that address issues related to the intersection of disability and employment
  • Lack in collaborative and cohesive approaches to addressing the barriers to employability prep
  • Lack of a ‘go-to’ consultation resource for staff and faculty that can provide consultation and refer to appropriate resources

The EPF is still under development and it is not meant to replace work that is already being done, rather it should enhance services that already exist. It is meant to act as a champion for accessibility, increasing individual’s capacity to best guide students with disabilities into the workforce. When following the EPF model, student services can help students to:

  • Make actionable plans to gain work-related experience throughout post-secondary
  • Engage in the opportunity to explore how their individual lived-experience of disability informs or intersects with their employment journey- How do they deal with disclosure issues? What does self-advocacy look like to them? 
  • Identify the employment pathways that best link with their employment goals
  • Build self-awareness and further develop skills through ‘right service, right time’ referrals provided by the EPF to the various student supports  -‘just-in time’ referrals to other services, helping the students build the capacity, don’t make the calls for them, but give them the resources and encourage them to act

What are the proposed functions of EPF?

To better understand what is meant by EPF Functions, below is what is being presented as the proposed essential set of student service functions, with the final three functions having a scope that can be extended past students, to other members of the campus community such as faculty and student service staff.

  1. Leverage the employment pathways
    1. Helping students with disabilities understand the pathways available, how, and when to access them and what the pathway entails so it can be assessed for best fit and effectiveness in meeting one’s employment goals.
  2. Gain work-related experience
    1. Accessing and applying to opportunities for hands-on experience that can be translated into reportable experience that can be shared with a potential employer.  Mapping out the student’s vision, long and short-term and breaking this down into manageable and actionable SMART goals.
  3. Build self-awareness
    1. Build awareness about strategies that work for the student to leverage their strengths in employment settings and mitigate their challenges in employment settings; self-awareness and how it links to self-advocacy (i.e.  self-awareness informing actions and choices); self-assessments related to work readiness (i.e. personal)
  4. Build self-advocacy skills
    1. Understanding of one’s self and their strengths/challenge- this can look different for everyone. Provide the student with support to communicate with employers through practice, prep, scripts development, role playing, discussion, building the ‘language’ and practicing for familiarity and comfort.
  5. Build soft skills that support employability
    1. Help students identify the soft-skills relevant to their employment goals, as well as understand if and/or how their lived experience of disability may impact their soft skills (i.e. communication, rapport building, outreaching) in order to best strategize and prioritize the skills they want to further develop.
  6. Build career management skills
    1. Provide access to resources which can assess which career management skills students with disabilities need.  Supports could include writing a resume, applying for a job, interviewing, preparing for job fairs, as well as planning, developing an action plan, measuring one’s progress against the career goals set.
  • Opportunity to have crucial conversations related to disability and employment
    • Provide access for students with disabilities, faculty and/or staff to have discussions with an individual who is knowledgeable in the areas of disability and employment, and who can navigate topics such as stigma, strategies, environments, useful resources, including providing guidance on potential next steps, resources, supports. 
  • Assessment of relevant needs and strengths
    • Help refer students to appropriate assessment services related to a wide variety of functional limitations and functional strengths.
  • An advisory function to support campus community on issues/topics of disability and employment
    • Act as a liaison between prominent accessibility and employment related services on campus, with a bird’s eye view of the programs, services and supports available to students with disabilities as well as faculty and staff. 

Next steps for the project

After completion of this project, some next steps that were identified by the research group include:

  • Using the EPF as an organizing framework for consolidation of services for students with disabilities to prevent inconsistent and ad-hoc service provision.
  • Developing expertise among staff and establish processes to address the intersection of disability and employment.
  • Supporting knowledge exchange and collaboration between services in order to facilitate increased opportunities for students with disabilities to leverage their strengths and address the entire spectrum of their needs.
  • Services and relevant external stakeholders should advocate for resource support from the institutional and the provincial funding sources in order to fully meet the needs of students with disabilities
  • Pursue development of a service model for all students that accommodates the needs of students with disabilities as well, through a universal design approach.
  • Establish a role that specializes in the EPF approach to serve as the champion and advisor to staff and managers in service delivery and program design.

Future Opportunities

There is an opportunity for the EPF to develop additional tools that can be supportive to all students in their career journey.  As one institution’s respondents pointed out:

“Yes there is a need for these functions, building a framework for students to assess where they are at, where they need to be and what needs to be worked on- for all students, not just students with disabilities”.

The implementation of the EPF model (which includes both direct student support and support to the campus in their efforts to implement more accessible practices within their individual spheres of influence), is one that can be effective in building capacity across the board to support students who experience marginalization through a vast number of intersecting identities and lived experiences. The professionals implementing the EPF functions would therefore have experience helping students and the campus community supporting them to identify their goals, needs, and additional skills that are required to address issues of access as they manifest in the intersection of a student’s unique lived experience and their individual work/career preparation and transition. The barriers to access for one person will be different depending on their individual profile and the specific area of work they wish to transition into. By assuring that students with disabilities have access to all services, including some that look at the journey to employment through the lens of accessibility and disability-related impacts (both positive and negative), post-secondary has the chance to respond to the diverse experiences of all students. The interplay between lived experience of disability and the journey to and into the work world must be acknowledged in the preparation and experiential opportunities available to all students.

The Research, Education, Accessibility and Design (READ) Initiative at Carleton University endeavours to establish Carleton as a Centre of Excellence in Accessibility, through multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral research, education and development toward a world that is accessible and inclusive. They bring the expertise across all academic disciplines and service departments at Carleton into collaboration with individuals and organizations that are committed to accessibility for persons with disabilities

To learn more about the David C. Onley Initiative click here (link to https://onleyinitiative.ca/) and to learn more about the proposed EPF model, contact the Tara Connolly from the READ Initiative at read_initiative@carleton.ca.

The Employment Pathway Facilitators for Students with Disabilities: A Feasibility Study was conducted by the READ Initiative at Carleton University. The authors of this project are Tara Connolly, Julie Caldwell and Boris Vukovic. The above report was created in partnership between the Research Impact Canada and the University of Carleton.

logo for the Research Education Accessibility and Design Initiative at Carleton University

This work was funded by The Conference Board of Canada through the Government of Canada‘s Future Skills Centre. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Future Skills Centre, its funder, or its partners.

Future Skills Centre is a partnership of Ryerson University, The Conference Board of Canada, and Blueprint.


CUSC. (2019). 2019 Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC) First-Year Students (p. 30) [Summary of Results]. Carleton University. http://oirp.carleton.ca/surveys/CUSC2019_summary.pdf

Kirby, D. (2009). Widening Access: Making the Transition from Mass to Universal Post-Secondary Education in Canada. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2(Special Issue), Article 3, pp. 1-17.

NEADS. (2018). Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation in Post-Secondary Education for Students with Disabilities (p.2).