October 13th, 2021

Higher Education Can Help Bridge the LD Employment Gap

The learning disabled (LD) community faces a number of competing obstacles and opportunities.

While the overall employment rate is at its highest in years thanks in part to a marked labor shortage, the percentage of disabled people who are actually employed remains low —very low— by comparison.  In fact, the disability/LD employment gap is more like a chasm: the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities is more than twice that of those without disabilities. 

It need not be this way. There are a number of wind-at-the-back movements that would point towards greater opportunity for people with disabilities at work. Functional approaches designed to better address learning needs, such as assistive technology, are very common in schools and becoming more common in the workplace. Software such as Grammarly and Dragon Speech are inexpensive, easy to learn, and can make a dramatic difference in the writing quality and speed of those with learning disabilities. Additionally, cultural shifts in the workplace include better recognition of the value that people with disabilities bring to companies. There is a growing awareness, led by Google and SAP, that LD and other neurodiverse people can contribute to diverse thinking based on their unique life experiences.

Despite promising progress, the movement does face significant headwinds in the form of rampant stigma and process friction in obtaining accommodation that de-motivates students from disclosing. A foundational issue is the challenging transition that young adults face to employment. The path starts with a high school graduation rate for students with LD that falls 10 percentage points lower than the national average, leading to lower college enrollment and persistence, and significant challenges for many students transitioning into employment.  In other words, even if a person with LD is able to successfully navigate one step, the next is likely to come with a  new set of obstacles to overcome.  

Let’s look at the data more closely:

  • Students with disabilities have a high school graduation rate of 67.1%, compared to a national average of 84.6%. 
  • Those with learning disabilities attend four-year colleges at half the rate of their peers
  • Only 17% of college students with LD take advantage of disability services or learning resources at their institution 
  • In 2020, 17.9% of people with a disability were employed, compared to 61.8% of people without a disability. 

There are many solution areas to this friction, and higher education must play a more central role. While there are many highly effective disability centers on campus, higher ed can take an active role to cut a smoother path from high school to college to work to help the transition and reduce the friction. The Rise Act attempts to address many of these issues.

Instead of continued low-to-no educational attainment and limited career mobility, imagine a different scenario  — where high school students are encouraged to apply to colleges that are proactive in reaching students with learning disabilities and supporting their success through on-campus and virtual services. Imagine that those colleges identify and partner with employers interested in recruiting more college students with LD. What might happen to the LD employment gap if more institutions worked with both students and companies to ensure career success through individualized support and even building an infrastructure for LD at work (such as disability employee resource groups)? 

If higher education extends its reach laterally on campus, below (to high schools), and above (to employers), we can reduce friction for students in need. This puts University LD/Disability centers in the center of the conversation as strategic assets that not only can drive enrollment, and students success, but build relationships with community partners —all of which can drive social mobility and reduce the gap.

Kevin Rockmael has been a leader in the education ecosystem for more than 20 years. Currently, he is a Sr. Principal at Guild Education. Kevin has driven innovation at a number of leading education organizations, including Entangled Solutions, Kaplan, Intrax Cultural Exchange, and the UCLA Riordan MBA Fellowship program. He currently resides in Berkeley, CA.

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