By Michaela Burton, Natalie Geiger and Mahadeo Sukhai

How to meet the needs of students with a wide range of cultural experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cognitive and physical abilities

Within today’s competitive global knowledge economy, career education programs play a vital role in the employment outcomes of growing numbers of diverse post-secondary students (Benz, Lindstrom, & Yovanoff, 2000; Berry & Domene, 2015; Flannery, Yovanoff, Benz, & Kato, 2008; Lindstrom, Doren, & Miesch, 2011). Perceptions of post-secondary students’ cognitive and physical abilities, social class, culture, race/ethnicity and experiences both within and outside the institution influence the way students are treated by employers and the future opportunities to which they have access (Lindsay & DePape, 2015; Trainor, 2012; D’Amico & Marder, 1991). Career educators have the capacity to increase access to the labour market for all students by building career development programs and strategies, work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities, and relationships with employers rooted in celebrating students’ diverse characteristics, cultural backgrounds, experiences and ways of thinking.

In fact, we believe that one of the most important factors in shaping the long-term health of the Canadian economy and our post-secondary institutions in today’s diverse global village is a shift toward a culture of universal design in post-secondary career education. This shift is highlighted in a recent CERIC-funded research project on “Accessibility and Universal Design in Career Transitions Programming and Services” led by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), a part of the larger NEADS “Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation for Students with Disabilities in Canadian Post-Secondary Education (2016-2018)” initiative funded by the Government of Canada.

Post-secondary career education built upon universal design

Universal design is founded upon the principle of equity, placing high value on diversity and inclusiveness (Burgstahler, 2012; Story, Mueller, & Mace, 1998). In other words, asking “How can a product, service or environment be designed and operated so that users have equitable access?” Within the context of universally accessible post-secondary career education, programming and the spaces and facilities in which it is delivered should be designed and implemented for students with a wide range of abilities, ages, life stages, learning styles, native languages, cultural backgrounds and other characteristics (Burgstahler, 2017).

Providing access is dependent on assessing users’ experiences and needs. It is crucial that those working in the career education space remain cognizant of their own implicit biases or self-reference points and consider student input when providing support to students. Based on their unique set of experiences, a student’s needs in relation to gaining career development skills or jobseeking may reach beyond the scope of standard employment skill development, job application or hiring practices. For example:

  • Navigating disclosure and workplace accommodations for a student with a disability;
  • Connection to native language, country and region and/or cultural differences in employment etiquette for an international student or student of another cultural or ethnic group membership;
  • Affordable access to professional clothing and networks for a student of low socioeconomic status;
  • Emphasis on transferable skill application and assistance with obtaining suitable employment skill training opportunities (e.g., experiential learning, internships, volunteering and part-time work for students with added time and energy barriers, such as students with disabilities and varsity and Olympic student-athletes).

While each jobseeker might differ in their personal experiences and identification with these personal experiences, the following are some fundamental needs that may remain constant for students when accessing career education programs and services:

(1) Sustainable and secure economic well-being as a means to engage in a secure quality of life.

(2) Peripheral resources such as social/transportation/technological supports that can maintain their academic and career aspirations.

(3) Feelings of security, progressive development and worthwhile investment in the type of education and employment they pursue.

Catering to these universal career development needs, while recognizing students’ distinct personal, developmental and experiential differences, will make a career education program more usable for everyone. Significantly, access for all minimizes the need for special accommodations for some students and employees. Taking steps to embed universal design thinking at the onset of career education program and service development will save time, energy and cost for students, employees, the institution and employers in the long run.

Empowering the career educator: Universal design best practices

As we write this article, we recognize that the career educator is one person whose role requires a team of cross-collaboration for success. Further, rather than a silo-culture of career education, a culture of teamwork, accessibility and universal design thinking is required throughout all student service programs at the post-secondary institution. It is essential for everyone to talk about inclusion, and to care about inclusion. If someone is not sure how to support a student, they should be able to work with someone else on campus or in the community who may understand aspects of a particular student’s needs and integrate this information into their practice. When each person practices their role with this intent, a culture of inclusion and universal design starts to form.

The following are some concrete examples of how career educators can contribute to forming a culture of inclusion and universal design in their role of supporting students with career development:

Student engagement

  • Be open to students’ narratives on a variety of factors which shape their day-to-day experience, and by extension, their employment-related interests and skills; include why they chose their academic program and the skills they feel they have gained from this education, their cultural background and what interests, characteristics and experiences they identify with, what kind of environment they would like to live and work in, what type of environment enables them to work their best, what challenges they are currently experiencing at the institution.
  • Ask students what methods they use to navigate information; work with them on problem-solving how they can most efficiently use their time to gather career-related information or apply to jobs.

Communications support

  • Obtain knowledge about where the assistive technologist is on campus; work with staff to prepare an information/communication plan if a student requests communication software for meetings.
  • Gain familiarity with multiple sources of communicative methods and devices outside of French and English (e.g., American Sign Language); develop strategies to meet the needs of students who may speak other languages.
  • Be prepared to provide multiple means of information to students regarding career education programs and services, and employment opportunity information (e.g., print format; electronic; speech-to-text; JAWS); encourage partner employers to provide information in accessible formats, where possible.
  • Facilitate opportunities for all employees within the career education team to learn about specialized accessible computer technologies.

Employment preparation

  • Prepare all students for interacting in diverse ways with employers in varying contexts (e.g., informational interviewing, different methods of informal and formal networking, job application components, interview processes, hiring and onboarding processes, goal-setting and expressing accommodation needs); ask “Will students be comfortable or able to follow standard forms of etiquette?”.
  • Prepare all students to practically articulate their previous experiences and invested time to prospective employers in a communicative format that is digestible and understandable (Elias, 2015; Wente, 2013). All experience is valuable!
  • Provide guidance to students on navigating employment-related challenges such as disclosure of a disability, cases of discrimination and obtaining professional clothing for interviews (e.g., Dress for Success program).
  • Emphasize learning and application beyond the classroom (e.g., co-curricular and work-integrated learning) when working with diverse students, and work with other student service providers, professors and employers to facilitate their equitable access to these experiences.

Campus, alumni and employer engagement

  • Be versed with other student service departments on campus, such as the Disability Service Office and Indigenous Student Services; partner with the student and a counsellor (especially those the student is familiar with) to prepare career plans.
  • Engage diverse alumni to create diverse mentorship programs; connect students to informal diverse networking platforms (e.g., Ten Thousand Coffees) to enable students to talk about employment-related issues with individuals they can relate to who are in the field.
  • Engage diverse alumni and employers who have expressed that increasing diversity is a priority in creating work-integrated learning and employment recruitment opportunities for diverse students, particularly students who identify with disabilities.

Career education is increasingly recognized as a critical component of the post-secondary student experience and of graduate success. The application of universal design principles in career education has enormous potential to improve access to the labour market for diverse student populations. By implementing best practices in universal design, career educators will maximize the impact of their interventions to support all students in successfully transitioning from education to the workforce.



Michaela L. Burton is the Lead Research Associate on the “Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation for Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities in Canada” project with special focus on Cognitive Ergonomics and Universal Design. She is an MA graduate of the University of Toronto’s School of Industrial Relations and Human Resources.

Natalie M. Geiger is a PhD student in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. She is a researcher for the “Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation for Post-secondary Students with Disabilities in Canada” project with special focus on investigating accessibility policy and practice in career education and employment transition programming.

Dr Mahadeo A. Sukhai is the Head of Research and Chief Accessibility Officer for the CNIB, and the Director of Research for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students. Dr Sukhai serves as the principal investigator for national projects to understand the student experience for persons with disabilities, and to examine the landscape of accessibility within Canadian post-secondary education.


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