According to the United Nations Development Programme, the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3 per cent, and only 1 per cent for women with disabilities. The 1 billion people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, accounting for about 15 per cent of the global population. Therefore, it is imperative that they are fully included in society, starting with having equal access to quality education.   

However, students, scholars and researchers with disabilities in higher education remain under-represented and they are among the most marginalized, vulnerable, and excluded groups on campus. They struggle with access to learning facilities and face various forms of stigma and discrimination, as well as barriers to exercising their rights. Inclusive education is important not only for students, scholars and academics with disabilities, but the societies they live in, as it helps to combat discrimination and promote diversity and participation.   

In the disability and higher education interview series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) highlights the contributions of intellectuals with disabilities to the world of academia and explores ways to build a truly inclusive learning environment. This article highlights how  students with disabilities can actively use the resources at their universities to ensure a smooth transition into the workforce upon completion of their studies.  

“As an international student, non-native English speaker, and a person with disabilities with no network,” Mariko Tatsumi moved from Japan to the United States in 2016 to pursue higher education and professional advancement.  

Despite the fact that she is legally blind in both eyes, Mariko has successfully completed a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management from Mercy University, a master’s degree in Social Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, and a policy and strategic partnership internship at the United Nations. This year, Mariko began working for the workforce planning team in the Office of Human Resources at the UN Secretariat as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO). 

Reflecting on her experience transiting into the workforce as a graduate student with a disability, Mariko acknowledged that her university has done a good job of offering support and accommodation for students with disabilities to optimize their learning and campus life. However, “The Disability Services and the Career Services Offices are not connected yet,” she noted. She says career services tailored for students with disabilities should include “creating a community for disabled students to connect and share information with each other, having career consultants for disabled students and joining or hosting career events for disabled students to get effective information.” 

In Mariko’s opinion, connecting students with disabilities with career opportunities is not a one-way street. “Any organization willing to hire qualified persons with disabilities should connect with schools to establish a special talent pool,” she said, with the hope that more companies will initiate special talent outreach, recruitment and procurement systems, and leadership programs for students with disabilities. Mariko finds the UN “a great example of an organization that sees us [professionals with disabilities] as an important part of diversity for the organization.” 

In lieu of adequate and tailored career counseling, Mariko advises students with disabilities to be proactive and create opportunities for themselves. Since her internship, Mariko has actively made contacts with professors and alumni from her university who also have UN experience, “to have a better understanding of the organization and get application advice,” which helped her get a full-time job after her internship.  

She also encourages all her peers with disabilities seeking meaningful work to be confident, and to connect with the world to prove that disability is not inability: “Be vulnerable, be comfortable with yourself and instead of worrying alone, get everyone involved. What we are trying to achieve is not easy and is not an overnight task. So, talk to others, and ask for help. You are talented in many ways and there are plenty of opportunities to expand your world.”  

Claudia Romero completed her master’s Degree in Varied Exceptionalities from the University of Miami as a student with dyslexia, a learning disability that causes difficulties in reading and writing and joined the workforce as a Support Service Coordinator at the American School Foundation of Guadalajara in Mexico.  

She believes that the skills she acquired as a student with disabilities help her in her professional life by preparing her to support students with special needs in her current role. Although her dyslexia diagnosis came quite late, she noticed her difficulty with reading and writing which prompted her to go to the writing center for essays in her university. Staff there provided her with useful approaches to making reading and writing easier, such as “gathering information before reading and learning to paraphrase.” She pointed out that these are mechanisms she uses as a teacher with her own students who have special needs. She also explained that navigating higher education with dyslexia provided her with creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills that she continues to benefit from in her professional life. Lastly, since her disability necessitated her asking for support from others, she has gained social skills that are crucial for a successful career. 

These realizations have led Claudia to believe that “You are not your disability; it is just something that you can use to your benefit.” She says that her disability has made her “more tolerant and open to human differences” and is convinced that “If people get together and realize what their strengths and weaknesses are and use those strengths to work as a team and grow from them, the world will be a much better place.”