Postsecondary Credential Attainment and Labour Market Outcomes for Ontario Students with Disabilities

Postsecondary Credential Attainment and Labour Market Outcomes for Ontario Students with Disabilities was written by Ken Chatoor, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Students with disabilities do not receive the same benefits from postsecondary education as other students

Students with disabilities experience barriers at each stage of their path through postsecondary education (PSE) and into the labour market when compared to students without disabilities according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). Students with disabilities are less likely to participate in any type of PSE program, especially programs at or beyond the bachelor’s level, and are more likely to attend part time or take a leave of absence from their studies than those without a disability. Those who do graduate also report significantly worse labour market outcomes compared to those without a disability and these gaps begin immediately after graduation.

Postsecondary Credential Attainment and Labour Market Outcomes for Ontario Students with Disabilities provides an overview of the journey to and through PSE and into the labour market for Ontarians with disabilities. The report uses data from Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey and General Social Survey and reviews provincial policies and processes that provide support for students with disabilities from K-12 through PSE.

The transition from high school into PSE is a challenge for students with disabilities as they shift from a system of built-in supports to an environment where students are required to seek out and engage with support systems on their own. Although the process for identifying and assessing the needs of students has its barriers in the K-12 system, students who are identified as requiring additional supports have access to a system of teachers, administrators and specialists able to provide assistance as part of the school environment. Once in PSE, these students must self-identify and register with their institutions’ Office for Students with Disabilities to access supports and grants. The data used for this analysis was collected long before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly impacted PSE. Recent HEQCO research showed that students with disabilities are more likely to encounter challenges when attempting to access support services, and that this issue worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The type of disability has a significant impact on students’ PSE and labour market outcomes. Students with mental health, learning or physical disabilities are less likely to graduate, and they experience worse labour market outcomes after PSE than other graduates. For example, those with a learning, mental health or physical disability are more likely to be low income compared to other graduates. Programs and policies providing support for students with disabilities should acknowledge that the type of disability creates different challenges and specialized solutions may be required. Without better data on the experiences of these students, it is difficult to explain these stark differences in student outcomes. There is justified sensitivity around data collection for vulnerable groups and while it is critical to be mindful of these challenges it is imperative to address this data gap.

After completing a program, graduates with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed or out of the workforce. Those who find employment are more likely to work in a job without employment benefits such as paid sick leave and other health supports and they are more likely to feel they are overqualified for their position. For many with disabilities, health is a significant factor limiting employment success, with 36% of recent graduates reporting health as the primary reason they do not have the job they intended at graduation. Past research has shown that PSE has important quality-of-life benefits beyond labour market outcomes, such as mental and physical health improvements, increased civil engagement and improved optimism for the future. However, graduates with disabilities do not enjoy these benefits to the same level as others. Graduates of all disability types are less likely to feel optimistic or hopeful about the future, with health emerging as a major source of stress.

HEQCO offers a series of recommendations for the postsecondary sector to consider when designing programs and systems of support for students with disabilities:

  • PSE institutions should incorporate Universal Design in Learning (UDL) in the development of course materials; general principles of accessibility and equity in teaching and learning will benefit all students.
  • Government and partners should evaluate perceptions of postsecondary among K-12 students with disabilities. To improve access to postsecondary, we must understand why students with disabilities are far less likely to participate.
  • Institutions and employers should work together to develop programs to support the school-to-work transition for PSE grads with disabilities. This programming should consider the health needs of these individuals, particularly students with learning, physical and mental health disabilities.
  • Institutions should continue to improve and build upon proactive supports for students with disabilities — particularly those with mental health disabilities, which often present at an age when individuals are in postsecondary.
  • Finally, data should reflect the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities and all stakeholders must work together to improve the consistency and quality of data to inform policy. Our analysis indicates that institutions and government should discern disability type whenever possible.