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Career outcomes for college graduates with severe physical and sensory disabilities.

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Chrisann SchiroGeist, Supervisor of Counseling Services in the University of Illinois' Rehabilitation Education Center and Joseph Larsen, Director of the Center, for their assistance both in formulating the direction of this investigation and in the data collection.

This work was supported in full or in part by a grant from Memphis State University Faculty Research Grant Fund. This support does not necessarily imply endorsement of research conclusions by the University.

Knowledge of the outcome of any human service delivery system is essential in an era of limited resources, when leaders, planners and policy makers must take results into consideration before deciding what services to support and what level of funding to provide. And as professionals who work in rehabilitation realize, the hallmark of effective vocational rehabilitation services is placement and retention in competitive employment.

Since the late 1970's when colleges and universities, under federal mandate, began to modify their campuses and to provide services to meet the needs of students with disabilities, the number of full-time college freshmen who identify themselves as disabled has increased from approximately 2.6 percent in 1978 to 7.4 percent in 1985 (Hippolitus, 1987). This increase may be due in part to rehabilitation counselors who, in an attempt to provide adequate services to persons who are severely disabled, often send a client to college to obtain an education that might make the difference between that client becoming successful or not. But while institutions of higher education currently admit and accommodate qualified applicants who have disabilities and while rehabilitation counselors provide financial sponsorship for clients with college potential, little has been done to evaluate the outcomes of a college education for individuals with severe physical and sensory disabilities.

In general, adults with disabilities have a higher unemployment rate than does any other segment of our population. Results of a recent Harris Poll (Harris, 1986) indicate that, overall, persons with disabilities who are of working age have an unemployment rate of approximately 65 percent, which the Poll ascribes to insufficient education and the subsequent lack of job skills necessary for today's labor market.

According to the Bureau of the Census, the percentages of persons who had work disabilities and who were in the work force ranged from 14.8 percent for those with less than 12 years to 46.5 percent for those with 16 or more years of education. This is compared to 54.1 percent and 82.2 percent, respectively, for those with no work disability (United States Department of Commerce, 1989).

According to studies of college alumni with disabilities, a college education does enhance the employability of individuals who are disabled, but not to the level of that of the general population. One survey, conducted within the California Community College System, was distributed to 3,000 persons with disabilities who had obtained their A.A. degree or certificate from a two-year institution within the previous three years. Of the 534 persons who participated in the California study 51 percent were employed, 41 percent were students and 8 percent were unemployed (Howard & Johns, 1986). Similarly, employment rates for disabled alumni from four community colleges in the Philadelphia area ranged from 40 percent to 55 percent (Thompson, 1986), while the rate for Memphis State University alumni, who graduated with a minimum of a bachelors degree between 1980 and 1986, was 62 percent (DeLoach, Sparger & Pullen, 1988). Finally, when the unemployment rate of physically disabled graduates of the University of Missouri between i 960 and 1977 was compared to the unemployment rate of disabled dropouts, Lonnquist (1979) discovered graduates had a 21 percent and dropouts a 48 percent unemployment rate.

In comparing the pre-graduation employment records of severely disabled alumni who graduated from Emporia State University from 1980 through 1985 with their post-graduation employment records, Frank, Karst and Boles (1989) found 35 percent had been unemployed prior to graduation and 5 percent after graduation. When Rivlin (1989) investigated the experiences of disabled and non-disabled alumni with advanced degrees who graduated between 1974 and 1985, she discovered no significant differences between the two groups in terms of full-time or part-time employment. She did find, however, professionals with disabilities were less likely to be working as educators and their salaries were markedly lower than the salaries of their counterparts.

While the aforementioned studies indicate that a college education does enhance employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, several had significant limitations. With an 18 percent response rate in the California survey and a 20 percent return rate in the Emporia State study, response bias may have had a significant effect on the results. The Memphis State survey had a greater participation rate (58%), but was based on a smaller sample (N=84). Moreover, all, with the exception of the Rivlin study, had restricted time frames, which precluded any assessment of the long-term impact of a higher education on career outcomes.

While higher education has proven to enhance the employ-ability of the blind and visually impaired (Hill, 1989) and the hearing impaired (Mowrey, 1987) specifically, Bowe (1985) stresses the importance of advanced education and training for persons with all disabilities, in light of changing job requirements related to the age of information. According to Bowie, only through appropriate training and education will persons with disabilities be able to perform jobs which require the use of advanced technologies to collect, analyze and communicate data.

In the past, adults with severe disabilities were apt to be deemed ineligible for many rehabilitation services, including education, due to unfavorable medical and/or vocational prognoses. Services which restored physical function had first priority, while services which restored the ability to live and work effectively with a severe disability received little support from either policy setters or service providers (Kutner, 1971). Before the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the focus of vocational rehabilitation services was on enhancing the employability of less severely affected individuals with disabilities, which often precluded the sponsorship of a college education for clientss with severe disabilities. even in the rare instance when the opportunity to obtain a higher education existed, such as at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

As early as 1948, the University of Illinois, through its Rehabilitation Education Center, began accepting applications from and making physical accommodations for WWII veterans with SCI Paraplegia. Initially the Center's services were focused on removing physical barriers and scheduling classes, but as the numbers and the functional impairments of applicants increased, so did the range of services. By the early 1950's, the Center was operating four liftequipped buses to accommodate students who were incapable of wheeling themselves around campus, and the influx of applications from persons with SCI and polio quadriplegia began. By the mid-1950's, the University had imposed a quota of having no more than 200 students "in wheelchairs" enrolled at any one time, a quota sometimes evaded by identifying wheelchair users as those who were without any ability to stand or walk.

By the mid-1960's, the disabled student body consisted primarily of persons with severe physical impairments, including those with both severe mobility and communications impairments from cerebral palsy, but the numbers of those with visual and\or hearing impairments was growing. To meet the increasingly diverse needs of its students, the Center expanded its services to include (a) readers, reader rooms, mobility and orientation training and a library of brailled and recorded materials, (b) a shop which designed assistive aids, ranging from knotted ropes to help students to sit up in bed to suppository inserters designed for the toileting needs of those with limited hand function, (c) a wheelchair and equipment repair unit, (d) an off-campus dormitory situated in the wing of a nursing home where students, who could not be physically self-sufficient, regardless of any expenditure of time, effort, environmental accommodations or special assistive aids, were housed, (e) interpreter services and (f) a medical wing staffed by a nurse and physician who rendered disability-specific medical services which were not available in the acute-care-oriented University Health Center.

Until changes mandated by the 1973 Rehabilitation Act began to occur, the University of Illinois was one of very few universities that would or could accommodate persons with severe disabilities. Therefore, even though many students were self-sponsored, having been judged too disabled to qualify for vocational rehabilitation services, annual applications for admission to the Illinois rehabilitation program far exceeded the number that could be admitted.

Gradually, however, the rationale for limiting services to those who were severely disabled began to weaken when federal legislation, medical advances and improved technology combined to heighten both the potential of the disabled population and the public's awareness of the cost of not developing that potential. For example, statistics on the total number of Americans with disabilities range from 36 to 40 million and, according to the Institute for Health and Aging (Disability Statistics Bulletin, 1988), 11.5 percent of all Americans of working age have a disability which interferes with their ability to work and which requires rehabilitation services if they are to enter, reenter or remain in the workforce.

Moreover, like people in general, people with disabilities are living longer. Concealed within estimates of a burgeoning older population is a correspondingly rapid increase of those who have been described as the forgotten population - individuals with lifelong disabilities. For example, among the elderly there are presently more than 200,000 individuals with developmental disabilities alone (Aging Network News. 1987).

The proportion of individuals who are working continues to decrease, compared to the proportion of individuals who have retired. Therefore, rehabilitation services which enhance the employment potential of persons with long-term disabilities, who have been or who could be productively employed, may be a key factor in enhancing the utilization of the workforce in our society. Despite federal legislation, i.e. the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which was designed to keep workers in the work force longer by protecting them from being forced to retire at 65, workers have increasingly opted for early retirement, at least in large companies with pension plans. Surveys of such companies revealed early retirements rose from 62 percent of total retirements in 1978 to 84 percent in 1986. Disability retirements, however, declined from 15 percent of total retirements in 1978 to 8 percent in 1986 ("Workers Still Retire Early," 1987). Despite the decline in overall disability retirements, however, there is some indication that persons with mid-career disabilities often do elect early retirement (Bowie, 1986; Roessler, 1989). According to an undated Rehabilitation Brief cited by Roessler (1989), "Of the some 560,000 people a year who become injured or ill on the job so they must leave work for at least five months, only about 50% or 280,000 will return to work" (p.14). In regard to persons with severe disabilities that predate their entry into the workforce, however, the question remains as to how long a worklife will they have, compared to their nondisabled contemporaries?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this investigation was to survey the career outcomes of persons with severe disabilities who graduated form the University of Illinois between 1948 and 1988. Alumni who utilized the services of the University's Rahabilitation Education Center were selected for study bacause of the Center's history of working with the students with severe functional impairments. Specifically, this study was designed to determine participants' employment status - whether they were employed, unemployed or retired -, participants' occupational field and participants' earned income level.


After the end of the 1988 Spring semester, a survey was mailed to former University of Illinois students whose names and addresses were available from the University's Rehabilitation Education Center. The Center, which provides special services to students with disabilities, had current addresses for 898 alumni who had graduated over the forty-year period from 1948 to 1988. The one-page questionnaire asked respondents to indicate their disability type, marital status, employment status, academic major, academic degree, date of graduation, and job title. The last item on the survey form was optional and dealt with source of income and amount if income. Analysis of results was based on comparison of the frequently and percentage of response to each item, utilizing the chi-square analysis in the Crosstabs package in the SPSS-X Program, collapsing categories of responses when necessary. Chi-square results appear in Table 4..


501 former alumni whose disabilities pre-dated their admission to the University of Illinois participated in the survey. Of those who participated, 308 (61%) were male and 193 (39%) were female. At the time of the survey, 294 (59%) of the respondents were married, 160 (32%) were single, 32 (6%) were divorced, 6 (1%) were separated and 7 (1%) were widowed. Two did not indicate their marital status. Of the 23 different disabling conditions reported by participants, four disabilities - polio (n=154-), spinal cord injured (SCI) Paraplegia (n=90), visual impairment (n=59), and SCI quadriplegia (n=55) - accounted for 72 percent of participating alumni. Four hundred seven (81%) of the respondents used wheelchairs and 75 (15%), including six persons with cerebral palsy, utilized communication aids, primarily readers and interpreters.

Employment, Umemployment and Retirement Status

Respondents were asked whether they were employed (full-time or part-time), whether they were unemployed (had never worked, were seeking a job, were between jobs or were currently unemployed but no longer looking for work), and whether they were retired (due to health, age, because they had lost a job or because they had received an early retirement offer from an employer). No one responded that retirement was the result of job loss.

A total of 418 respondents were currently employed. 375 (90%) were employed full-time and 43 (10%) were employed part-time. Eleven of those who worked part-time were married woman with young children.

A total of 54 respondents indicated they were currently unemployed. Of those who were not working, 5 (9%) had never worked, 20 (37%) were between jobs, 16 (30%) were actively looking for work and 13 (24%) were unemployed and not actively seeking employment. Among respondents who were between jobs were those who were in the process of moving, who had recently married, who were recovering from surgery, an illness or, in two instance, auto accidents. Three who were unemployed and not actively seeking employment were living in nursing homes.

Of the 32 persons who had retired, 23 (72%) did so because of poor health. Of the 23 who retired for health reasons, 12 were disabled due to poliomyelitis, with several specifically identifying post-polio sequelae as the reason for their retirement. Two persons (6%) retired due to age, 4 (12%) because of an early retirement offer by an employer and 3 (9%) indicated they retired "because I wanted to."

Persons who were retired were also asked at what age they had retired. Responses ranged from age 40 to age 65, with 5 retiring before the age of 50, 4 between 50 and 55, 16 between the ages of 55 and 60 and 4 after the age of 60.

Three respondents who were retired did not give the age at which they retired. The youngest retiree indicated he retired because he wanted to and credited his college education for his ability to do so at age 40 on investment income. Two retirees, one who consults part-time and one who, following an early retirement offer in the private sector, accepted a full-time position as a university professor in electrical engineering, are not represented in the employed column.

Employment, unemployment and retirement status by disability type are depicted in Table i. Chi-square analysis of disability type (categories collapsed) and employment status resulted in no significant level of difference among these variables. [TABULAR DATA 1 OMITTED]

Occupational Category

Of the 19 general occupational categories into which respondents fell, the 11 categories with the largest numbers of respondents were: Administrative and Managerial (n=97), General Business (n=67), Education (n=65), Helping Professions (n=52), Computer Science (n=33), Law (n=27), Engineering (n=20), Clerk/Secretarial (n=14), Science (n=11), Government (n=11) and Medicine (n=10). Table 2 lists job titles as they were given by survey participants. [TABULAR DATA 2 OMITTED]

Chi-square analysis of the relationship between disability type and occupational category obtained a significance level of P.05. Subjects with polio and spinal cord injury were more often employed in administrative and managerial positions. Subjects with polio were less often employed in the field of law and in the helping professions. Subjects with cerebral palsy were more often employed in clerk/secretarial positions and less often employed in administrative and managerial positions.

Amount and Source of Income

Of the 488 persons who responded to the optional item on income, 65 percent reported incomes over $25,999 a year, 55 percent had incomes over $30,999 a year, and 21 percent had incomes over $50,000 a year. None of the participants in this study received income from unemployment compensation, workmans compensation or disability insurance. Fourteen (2.8%) received social security retirement payments, 34 (6.8%) received social security disability insurance (SSDI) payments, 1O (2.2%) received supplemental security income (SSI) payments, 28 (5.6%) received employer or VA pensions and 83 (16.6%) received investment income Among those who reported their income as earned income (salaries and fees), 69 percent had an annual income of $25,999 or more, 59 percent $30,999 or more and 22 percent $50,000 or more.

Although chi-square analysis revealed no significant relationship between disability type and total income, the clustering of respondents in a limited number of salary levels prevented an analysis of occupational category (or disability type) and salary income alone (see Table 3). For example, persons working as librarians fell in only two salary levels, with 33 percent earning salaries between $10,000 and $15,999 and 66 percent earning salaries between $20,000 and $25,999.

Table 3 depicts occupational categories with 20 percent or more of respondents in each category falling within the 8 salary levels. Occupational categories are listed in descending order, beginning with the category with the largest percent (in bold print) of persons employed in that specific category within the uppermost salary level. Medicine, with 75 percent of respondents in that occupation earning $50,000 or more per year, was ranked as the highest salaried occupational category. Library Science, with 66 percent of respondents in that occupational field earning $20,000 to $25,999 was ranked as the lowest, with the exception of the miscellaneous category which combined categories with low percentages of respondents. [TABULAR DATA 3 OMITTED]


The results of this investigation support what rehabilitation professionals have argued for decades - access to higher education can enhance the employability and the vocational success of qualified individuals with severe disabilities. At the time of the survey, 83 percent of those who participated were employed and 6 percent of those who had been employed were retired. Fewer than 1 percent had never worked since attaining a college education. The enormity of these statistics lies in the fact that these employment and unemployment rates apply to a small subset of individuals who have severe disabilities and who, without environmental and academic accommodations, most likely would have been relegated to a lifetime of financial dependence.

In regard to longevity in the workforce, most participants who had attended the University in the late 1940's and in the 1950s were continuing to work 30 and 40 years after they had completed their education. Of the 6 percent who had retired, 72 percent retired for reasons of health and of those who retired because of health, 52 percent identified post-polio sequelae as the reason for their retirement.

Throughout the forty-year time span, the majority of students served by the Rehabilitation Education Center had severe physical disabilities. When survey results were analyzed in terms of four time periods - late 1940s through the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s - , no statistically significant differences were found between unemployment and employment, occupational categories, salary levels of proportion of physical disabilities to sensory disabilities, but there was a change in specific disability types. Between 1948 and 1988, the percentage of alumni with polio and SCI paraplegia declined, the percentage with SCI quadriplegia and cerebral palsy increased and then stabilized, and the percentage with visual impairments grew steadily.

Overall, the largest number of respondents were disabled due to poliomyelitis. But from being the most common disability type in the late 1940s and the 1950s, polio became nonexistent among survey participants after 1985. If the employment/retirement pattern of this University's graduates continues, there could be a corresponding decrease in the number of alumni who retire for health reasons in the future.

The number of alumni with SCI paraplegia also decreased somewhat over time. Unlike poliomyelitis, however, the decreased incidence of spinal cord injury can not be attributed to a decreased incidence within the general population but possibly to the increased ability of would-be students to obtain an education in a variety of colleges and universities. Finally, the stable proportion of alumni with celebral palsy and the increase in those with visual impairments since the 1960s may be due both to the University's myriad of supportive academic and rehabilitative services which are specific to the needs of persons with these disabilities, and the diversity of academic programs with successful graduates with severe functional impairments from cerebral palsy and loss of vision.

According to this investigation, 99 percent of the disabled population at the University of Illinois consisted of physically disabled, visually impaired and hearing impaired persons through 1988. Therefore, the results of this survey may have limited relevance to alumni from colleges and universities if other types of disabilities, such as learning disabilities, predominate.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of this investigation was the lack of a significant relationship between disability type and employment. Moreover, the list of job titles held by survey participants should dispel any doubt that, for these respondents at least, disability does not preclude employment in numerous and diverse occupational areas. For example, it is simpler to describe the career paths of participants with SCI quadriplegia by listing the seven occupational categories into which respondents did not fall - medicine, clerk/secretarial, entertainment, library science, religion, art and farming - , than by listing the twelve categories into which they did. And although no systematic attempt was made to link each job title with an individual's type or level of disability, a respondent who is employed as a federal court judge described herself as a "quadriplegic wheelchair-user" and three physicians used wheelchairs to spinal cord injuries.

A final argument for the feasibility of providing equal access to colleges and universities and for supporting a college education for qualified severely disabled applicants rests on the economic self-sufficiency of those who participated in this survey. Apart from earned income levels and the income tax revenues generated, 17 percent of the respondents were receiving income from investment activities which contribute to the economic stability of our society, compared to 2 percent who were benefiting through SSI payments from that economic stability.

The final issue which must be addressed in whether or not the major advantage of this survey - the opportunity to assess the current employment status of alumni who attended the University of Illinois over a forlty-year time span - is also its major limitation. Are expectations based on this survey's results applicable to individuals with disabilities who are current or recent graduates of other colleges and universities?

Because the University of Illinois was the first university to accomodate applicants who were disabled, the admission process was highly competitive. Prior to changes mandated by Section 504, the final criteria for admittance was the individual's ability and willingness to be physically self-sufficient despite severe functional limitations. It was not unusual for students to require three hours or more each day to get up, bathe, dress and be ready for breakfast or to leave for classes Students who sought help from friends or roommates were threatened with expulsion from the University. (DeLoach and Greer, 1981). Therefore, not only did applicants have to have outstanding academic potential, they also had to have a strong desire and determination to obtain an education. College applicants with disabilities today, like applicants who are not disabled, find it much easier to be admitted to the college of their choice The result may be that no colleges in the future will have alumni who as motivated or who become as successful as the Illinois alumni represented in this survey.

What is not in doubt is that, without a higher education, individuals with severe physical and sensory disabilities will never become as financially independent or as able to utilize their skills for the benefit of society, as they would with an advanced education. Take the case of Stephen Hawking, who has been a wheelchair-user for twenty years, who is unable to speak or write without computerized assistance and who is regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein. Imagine the loss to the field of Physics and, ultimately, to humankind in general, had he, when diagnosed as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis twenty-five years ago, been declared ineligible for a college education.


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Author:DeLoach, Charlene P.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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