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UC Berkeley class prepares disabled students for competitive job market

If it’s a tough job market out there for able-bodied college graduates, imagine how employment prospects might look to students with cerebral palsy or a muscular or neurodegenerative disease. That's why a dozen UC Berkeley students are enrolled in “Professional Development and Disability,” a unique course that is teaching them how to market their disabilities as strengths.

If it’s a tough job market out there for able-bodied college graduates, imagine how employment prospects might look to students with cerebral palsy or a muscular or neurodegenerative disease.

UC Berkeley’s Professional Development and Disabilities Class (Video  produced by Roxanne Makasdjian and Angela Holm)

Take Jade Theriault, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, who uses a wheelchair and worries about how to discuss with a prospective employer the workplace accommodations she will need due to spinal muscular atrophy.

Or Bridget McDonagh, a freshman whose right side has been paralyzed since she suffered a stroke at age 2.

But this spring, Theriault, McDonagh and a dozen other UC Berkeley students with physical and/or mental disabilities are enrolled in “Professional Development and Disability,” a unique course that is teaching them how to market their handicaps as strengths in the job market.

“I don’t have a resume. I’ve never worked a steady job. I’m a quadriplegic, so I can’t do anything that’s going to be physical,” said Theriault, who is considering majoring in rhetoric and media studies. “But I’m pretty good in interviews.”

“I try to prove that I can do what anyone else can do,” said McDonagh, who gets around with the help of a cane.

UC Berkeley is home to hundreds of disabled students who have the grades and smarts to thrive on campus, but show a lack of confidence that often comes from feeling unprepared to compete in a risk-averse job market that associates disability with inconvenience and litigation, said Paul Hippolitus, director of the campus’s Disabled Students Program.

Nearing the end of its first year, Hippolitus’s two-credit Professional Development and Disability course – taught under the sponsorship of  English professor Susan Schweik and the Office of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies– is open to all students and has attracted those with a wide range of visible and invisible disabilities.

A 30-year veteran of the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, Hippolitus came up with the idea for the class after coming to UC Berkeley in 2009 and finding that many high-achieving disabled students became phobic at the idea of entering the workplace. About 10 percent of America’s workforce report some form of disability, according Hippolitus.

“I’d ask students if they had a summer job or an internship lined up, and they’d say, ‘No, I’m just going to rest’,” said Hippolitus, the father of a disabled child, and who himself has a learning disability and chronic illnesses. “They’re bright enough to get into UC Berkeley, but when it comes to the job market, they just freeze up.”

He noted that many disabled students eschew the workplace in favor of graduate school, or avoid getting a job for fear of losing disability benefits that cover such costly services as medical insurance, living expenses and full- or part-time attendants.

Through his professional development class and other efforts, Hippolitus is hoping to start a movement to change attitudes and get more disabled people into the workplace.

“A class like this is absolutely essential in order to push aside low expectations and serious lack of knowledge about what it takes to succeed in the world of work,” Hippolitus said. He encourages his students to highlight their successes at overcoming obstacles and supervising attendants — including hiring and firing them — among other  skills that come with managing their disabilities.

In a recent class, Hippolitus did not sugarcoat the challenges students will face in a competitive job market, but urged them to take every opportunity to promote themselves via social media, among other networks. On average, he said, a job candidate has  7 seconds to make a good first impression and 30 seconds to connect emotionally with an employer. Most recruiters spend 6 seconds scanning a resume, which is why it’s best to stick to one page, he added.

Class teaches disabled students how to navigate awkward questions about mobility.

Students in the class were quick to ask Hippolitus how to handle questions about what accommodations they might need on the job. While the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act bars employers from asking job candidates about their disabilities, the topic is hard to avoid for people with obvious disabilities, and  Hippolitus takes a pragmatic approach to navigating these awkward conversations.

“If an employer asks a question about your disability, don’t say, ‘Aha, we’re going to court!’ … you’ll be branded as litigious,” Hippolitus told his students. “What might you say to turn it around and make it a win instead of a loss?”

For example, he suggests that, when asked about mobility issues, job candidates in wheelchairs might say something along the lines of “‘I understand that travel is a key requirement of this job I’m applying for, and I wanted to tell you about my past traveling accomplishment from this wheelchair’ …  In other words, grab the bull by the horns and answer an employer’s unspoken fears about hiring someone with a disability,” Hippolitus said.

UC Berkeley has played a key role in the disability rights movement since 1962 when Ed Roberts, a young man with quadriplegia due to childhood polio, convinced the university to admit him and moved into the campus’s Cowell Hospital.

Roberts later secured grants to launch what is now UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program, to offer counseling, housing assistance and even wheelchair repairs. In 1998, New Mobility Magazine ranked UC Berkeley as the nation’s 2nd most disability-friendly.

Today, about 1,200 students use services provided by the Disabled Students Program. Of those students,30 percent have psychiatric disorders, 30 percent have learning disabilities and the remainder have physical disabilities, visual impairments, chronic illnesses and cognitive disabilities. In addition to the professional development class, the Disabled Students Program helps place students in jobs and paid internships.

For the summer, McDonagh, the freshman with partial paralysis, has landed a position with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers). A native of New York, she came to California to be closer to her father, who lives in Sacramento, and to escape the cold East Coast winters.

“UC Berkeley is pretty accommodating, said McDonagh, who is thinking of majoring in legal studies.

A native of Los Gatos, Calif., Theriault came to UC Berkeley on the advice of her aunt, Alana, a Berkeley-based disability rights advocate who was also born with spinal muscular atrophy.

“I had to get out of the house. I was going crazy,” said Theriault, who was debate captain in high school and is looking into entertainment law as a career option. “I knew I would have a safety net at Berkeley.”  She is vice president of external affairs for the campus’s Disabled Students Union.

Hippolitus’s professional development class is now part of Theriault’s safety net because “it’s cut-throat out there,” she said, and she needs the skills to go after her dream job.

“If you’re confident, people don’t mess with you,” Theriault said with a broad smile.

Related coverage: “Ready, willing and able: Students with disabilities prepare for the work world” (NewsCenter article, August 2011)