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Working with a disability

What will the future be like? This is something that every student wonders about as graduation approaches. What will I do? How can I find a good job? And even more importantly: How do I land that job once I have found it? If a student has a disability, additional questions may also arise. A symposium was held on 26 January, where students, experienced individuals and employers exchanged their own challenges and tips on this topic.

'I feel like I'm going into the labour market with a disadvantage and that I need to do something to compensate for that,' one of the symposium participants said. His concerns were shared by other attendees, most of them students with an occupational disability. And that's not so surprising, commented student counsellor Marcel Melchers: ‘Most students are apprehensive about that, whether they have a disability or not: Will an employer be receptive to me?’

Positive reactions

The 'Working with a disability' symposium is an initiative of Leiden University Career Services and Fenestra Disability Centre, Leiden University's information centre for disabled students. Melchers organised the event together with academic and career adviser Tanja Bos. 'In the period leading up to the symposium we got a lot of positive reactions, not just from students who wanted to come, but also from the speakers and from colleagues who were happy to see this issue getting the attention it deserves,' Bos explained. It is obvious that it's a highly relevant issue   the Spectrum Room was completely full.

The importance of diversity

Things got a bit heated at times during the panel discussion. One proposition in particular elicited sharp reactions: 'Every organisation needs a highly motivated disabled worker.' Bart de Bart, who founded Stichting Studeren & Werken Op Maat, which in English translates as the Customised Study and Work Foundation, disagrees with this idea: 'You'll be stuck with this label in your organisation, like some sort of circus act!' But other opinions were also voiced by attendees: 'That might be able to serve as a stepping stone, for one's first job, and after that you can use the experience to go on to a subsequent job.' Roosmarijn Horowitz, a Human Resources professional with experience in the field, stressed the importance of striving for diversity in a business. 'Research shows that organisations with diverse teams and an active diversity policy are more productive, have happier employees and also have a more stable economic basis, due to the fact that a diverse staff also results in a diverse customer base.'

The application process

Another issue that came up during the discussion was the application process used by many businesses. ‘A person with a disability is entitled to an adapted application process,' student counsellor Melchers explained to the attendees. 'The first interview is often mainly about seeing if there is a "click", and that sort of interview requires skills that a person with autism, for example, will find very difficult. Then he or she ends up getting excluded from consideration for the wrong reasons,' Melchers continued.

Looking at excellence in a different way

After the discussion, Bart de Bart from Werken en Studeren Op Maat took the floor. He started this organisation based on experiences he himself had with a disability when he was a student. He and his team now help between 120 and 140 disabled students find work each year. De Bart also thinks that the way job applications are currently conducted puts people with a disability at a disadvantage. 'One thing we should be doing is looking at excellence in a different way. Perhaps a person hasn't done an internship at the United Nations, but has acquired useful skills and qualities, such as perseverance and flexibility, in some other way. But that involves a story, and the person needs to be given the opportunity to tell it.' He also encouraged the students in the room to be honest with themselves: 'What do you need to achieve your goal? Don't be embarrassed to ask for help.'

When to tell?

A recurring theme wasthe question of when is the best time for a student to talk about his or her disability. Even the experts and employers at the event weren’t in agreement on this point. But Pim, a master's student of Law and Philosophy, was relieved about that. 'If the experts haven't figured it out yet, that means that I can't be doing it wrong.' He would like to go on to earn a PhD once he has finished his master's. 'I have ADHD, which makes studying a bit harder. But my disability also has some positive aspects; it entails a lot of creativity.' Pim was glad that this symposium was organised. 'It's a great meet & greet event with people dealing with the same obstacles.'

Being practical

In the afternoon there were workshops on applying for jobs and presenting yourself, given by speakers who also have an occupational disability. Career coach Margriet van Kampenhout gave students tips on issues such as how to make a good impression on an employer and how to be successful at your first job. 'When you're preparing, it's important to be practical: translate your disabilities into what you need on the job.' She also advised that it's important to remain calm during a job interview. 'Avoid going overboard when you're explaining your disability or in defending yourself. Mention a single argument and then stop talking, to give the other person an opportunity to react.' And once you are working at your first job, it's important to make agreements about special arrangements, such as additional time for certain tasks or irregular working hours, and to not be afraid to bring these agreements up again.

Focus on talent

‘Whether or not you're disabled, applying for a job is no one's favourite occupation,’ Horowitz added, 'not even for a seasoned specialist like me. As soon as you start applying, you need to switch the dial from "occupational disability" to "specific qualities". Having a disability as a student entails that you are quite unique and specific in something, so specific that you have trouble connecting into the mainstream. If you flip that around, that's something quite special for employers.' Van Kampenhout also wants to teach students to focus on their abilities and talents. 'It's a good idea to first think about what bothers you about your disability and to talk about it with someone beforehand. The clearer you yourself are about both sides, the easier an interview will be with a future employer.'

The 'Working with a Disability' symposium was organised by Leiden University Career Services and the Fenestra Disability Centre. You are welcome to contact Fenestra Disability Centre for advice on all types of issues concerning your disability. The Centre conducts screening for students with a disability, supports requests for facilities and can provide orientation for both inside and outside the university. 

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