Accessing a world of opportunity

Graduates with disabilities are being offered a greater range of work experience than ever before

In today's competitive employment market, decent work experience on a CV is a commodity that cannot be rated too highly. For disabled students though, the opportunity to serve in bars and restaurants, deliver the mail or simply flip burgers has traditionally been limited.

At the University of Manchester, where more than 1,580 students are registered as disabled, careers consultant Chris Hughes, who has special responsibility for disabled students, believes that the business world is more willing than ever before to offer work experience to those with both seen and unseen disability.

"It's partly because of recent legislation, partly because of the recognition that customers too have disabilities, and also the feeling that firms want to be seen to be doing the right thing. The combination of all these things has prompted a more positive view of disability by the business community than ever before," says Hughes, who adds that it is the role of careers advisers to make such work placement arrangements better known to students.

One of the schemes Hughes highlights is the management-oriented Fast-Track Development Programme run by the charity Scope, which offers 12-month placements to disabled graduates each year at a current salary of £14,000. Although Scope's name is usually linked to cerebral palsy, the annual programme, which begins every September, is open to candidates with any disability, including hearing or visual impairment, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, dyslexia and repetitive strain injury. The applicant's degree subject or grades are unimportant.

Fast-Track, which includes two separate six-month placements, has attracted the support of leading employers including HSBC, Sainsbury's, PwC and Barclays. While only around a dozen placements can generally be offered each year, the programme continues to attract large numbers of potential recruits. Scope says that to date, it has achieved a 100 per cent success rate in trainees gaining employment "suitable to their educational achievements" - the chief reason why it was set up six years ago - with many graduates going on to secure permanent employment with their work placement sponsors.

Other organisations now offering summer work placement schemes are the BBC (via its Extend programme) and the Civil Service, which offers 75 summer placements to disabled undergraduates and graduates who either have, or expect to achieve, a minimum 2.2 degree in any discipline.

The Civil Service programme, announced in February by the Cabinet Office, is designed to offer "valuable work experience and forge the next vital link" in establishing the careers of disabled people. The Cabinet Office says it hopes to "dispel discriminatory attitudes and practices" by placing trainees in various government departments where they will be "introduced to the interesting and varied challenges in today's modern Civil Service".

Other sectors and firms holding out a hand to disabled graduates are investment banking, representatives of which recently ran a one-day programme for disabled job-seekers called Capital Chances and BT, which Hughes says "stands out in terms of its willingness to organise career workshops for the disabled".

In addition, more than 300 employers sign up to the Employers Forum on Disability, which means that they guarantee a first interview to disabled graduates who meet their entry requirements.

The University of Manchester's own Interact programme, a successful mentoring programme for students with disabilities run jointly by the University of Manchester and UMIST Careers Service, offers expert support for disabled students looking to clarify their career plans. Now in its sixth year, Interact has received support from organisations such as Shell, Land Rover, PwC, the BBC, Accenture, Johnson & Johnson, ICL, Ford and BT - all of whom have provided the expertise of a range of staff from young graduate managers to senior executives.

Interact is open to any disabled student in their penultimate, final or postgraduate year; with selection determined on the basis of an initial application and possibly a short interview. The career field that a student has in mind may be anything from accountancy or journalism to IT or the voluntary sector.

The scheme matches each student with someone in the appropriate field who can help improve the student's understanding of the job market and give them inside knowledge of their chosen field, develop their skills and boost their confidence, address issues around disability and disclosure and offer feedback on their job search.

For more information, see www.scope.org.uk or www.employers-forum.co.uk

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