Stephen Pritchard discovers how disabled graduates can gain valuable work experience
Job-hunting can be a difficult and disheartening process for anyone. But for the growing number of graduates with disabilities, finding a suitable job is all the more fraught.

Research by the charity Scope suggests that it is four times harder for a disabled person to be successfully short-listed or interviewed than it is for a candidate without a disability.

Universities have made strenuous efforts recently to attract more students with special needs. Better physical access has gone hand in hand with better training for staff, and better information for applicants.

Some 8,000 students with a variety of disabilities attend university in the UK. Although there are no separate employment figures for this group, careers advisers admit they find the job search far harder than their contemporaries without special needs. This can be especially frustrating, as the disabled person who has made it through university will have already overcome many obstacles to take part in mainstream education.

Richard Perrott, co-ordinator for Workable, which finds placements for graduates with special needs, says: "In terms of achievement, I would rate them [the graduates] several pegs higher than their actual degree qualification because of all the barriers in the way."

At Workable, Mr Perrott helps disabled graduates to enter the job market using a tactic recommended for any applicant lacking job-related skills: work experience. The organisation, a registered charity, matches CVs with placements employers send in. Applicants are not charged and, wherever possible, Workable tries to find paid vacancies. Placements last from six weeks to a year.

Companies that offer placements are blue chip and include such names as Tate & Lyle, International Distillers and Vintners, Sainsbury's and British Airways. In fact, Workable has found large private-sector companies to be the most responsive. Smaller firms, and the public sector, are simply not as geared towards work placements, regardless of any applicant's special needs.

Placements are open to undergraduates as well as graduates. Most are in London and the South-east, as that is where most graduate employers are based. Workable has an office in Reading, Berkshire, and is developing links with universities in the Midlands and North-west. More than 30 candidates obtain placements each year. Workable also runs workshops at universities across the country, covering issues such as writing a CV, and deciding when to declare a disability on a job application.

The placement is vital because the candidate develops valuable job-related skills, such as the use of computers. More important, they are able to show they can hold their own in a work environment. Disabled graduates who attended special schools gain particular benefit from this; many feel they are disadvantaged by the sheltered nature of their education.

Employers also benefit. "Quite often they have fears and pre-conceived ideas around disability," says Mr Perrott. "Our programme aims to break down some of these pre-conceptions."

Liz Woskett, a law graduate from the University of East London, found her placement through Workable. Her job is split between the facilities unit and personnel department of International Distillers and Vintners. Partially sighted since birth, she uses a guide dog outside, but her day- to-day work requires little adaptation. She uses a large monitor on her PC with large-print software - the latter cost her employers nothing - but the applications, such as Microsoft Word, are standard.

Ms Woskett says careers advisers, at school and university, could not really give her useful advice: "I had to find most of the answers myself." Workable's assistance has been more successful.

She feels that before the placement she was underselling herself by putting her disability high up her CV, before the skills that might make a recruiter read further. Overcoming that, coupled with practical skills gained at a world-renowned company, should stand her in good stead.

Workable shows candidates how to make the most of their experience and skills and how to present them in a manner that is attractive to employers. But it also provides links into companies open to applicants with special needs, and can advise both parties on what is required for the placement to be a success.

One in three of Workable's placement candidates finds graduate-level employment. "There reaches a stage on a person's CV when a work experience placement is critical in how they will be viewed by employers," says Richard Perrott. "If you can get some good employers' names on your CV, it works very well."