Canadian university graduates with disabilities struggle to enter the permanent workforce and face a wage gap even after landing a full-time job, according to a new study co-authored by University of Guelph researchers.

In the Canadian Review of Sociology study, Prof. David Walters, Sociology and Anthropology, and PhD candidate Brad Seward found that students with disabilities faced greater difficulty in finding employment than their peers. Along with David Zarifa, a professor at Nipissing University, the researchers examined Statistics Canada’s National Graduates Survey.

Liberal arts, business and engineering graduates with self-disclosed disabilities faced more difficulties finding full-time work than graduates in sciences and health care.

“There’s a gap of approximately $4,000 between graduates with and without disabilities, and that’s just two years after graduation; we would expect that gap to grow with time,” said Walters.

“However, the even bigger challenge is in finding full-time employment. The unemployment rate for graduates with a disability is twice as high as for those without one.”

Liberal arts graduates with a self-disclosed disability earned approximately $6,000 less than their peers who did not report having a disability. They struggle the most to find full-time employment, though business and engineering graduates also had significant issues.

Graduates with disabilities were more likely to be found in part-time jobs, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded study found.

“Universities have taken the lead in making education more accessible, and our study found that higher education is generally beneficial in terms of helping graduates find employment. Graduates with self-disclosed disabilities typically do better if they graduate from university, than college or trades programs,” said Walters.

“But the important thing we found is that it mostly depends on what program you choose. We need to start looking at what we’re doing to prepare students for future employment.”

Seward recommends that high school counsellors be more aware of these results when they are advising students.

“Not all programs are equal when it comes to finding permanent, well-paying jobs,” he said.

“University administrators also need to examine what they can do to better prepare students on campus for employment once they graduate. For example, liberal arts grads have strong skill sets, but they need to know how to channel and market those skills.”

Walters suggests universities could also work closer with employers to better prepare graduates, especially those with disabilities, for making their transitions from school to work.

“We hope this study will lead to better-prepared graduates, ready to find jobs regardless of their disabilities and struggles,” he said.

“The educational system has changed to the point where universities, as institutions of higher learning, are evolving. Students are investing considerably more time and money in university, so policy-makers and institutions need to pay increasing attention to their labour market transitions to make that investment worthwhile.”