Equitable access to employment is a prerequisite for a just society, yet many job candidates struggle to find work aligned with their goals, needs and qualifications. This is especially true for job candidates with disabilities, who often experience barriers to entering the labour market and progressing in their careers.
This is a problem for the people affected, but also for society. Underemployment and unemployment create a host of financial and human costs carried by all. These include increased need for social support and mental health services, diminished tax revenues and reduced access to skilled workers. Overall, it means reduced community well-being.
Removing employment barriers for people with disabilities requires a multifaceted approach, but it starts with equitable access to education.
MBA degrees are considered the gateway to lucrative and influential senior positions, and they are increasingly required for promotion to mid-level managerial jobs. As a result, disability barriers in these programs represent a critical challenge to inclusion.
Barriers surface early in MBA programs
We examined these issues in a study of 184 prospective, current and former MBA students with disabilities. Varun Chandak, president of Access To Success, an organization that advocates for inclusive design and accessibility, was instrumental in initiating and providing practical support for this research.
We found that disability-related barriers surfaced as early as the application stage and continued to impact academic experience until graduation. This research explored the specific challenges that respondents experienced and their recommendations to improve inclusion.
Disability-related factors influenced these MBA students’ educational decisions from the start. Many candidates did not consider applying to certain programs based on program inflexibility, overly large class sizes, perceived stigma towards disability and inaccessibility.
Respondents were attracted to schools that demonstrated support by having physically accessible campuses, easily located accommodation policies, and students or faculty with disabilities in their promotion materials.
Over half of students faced barriers
Overall, one in three respondents faced disability-related barriers during the application process. The accessibility of standardized tests required for entry into MBA programs (such as the GMAT and GRE) was a notable concern.
For example, respondents noted barriers when booking appointments and when attempting to use permissible accommodation-related software during the testing process. Many of the issues identified, however, particularly in the booking process, were very promptly addressed by the relevant organizations after receiving initial report data.
After entering a program, 57 per cent of respondents experienced disability barriers.
The most frequently cited problems were:
- Overly demanding schedules, inflexibility about deadlines (for example, one respondent was not given an extension despite having a seizure, while another was asked to make a graded presentation from the hospital);
- Difficulty participating in classroom discussions due to hearing impairments or social anxiety;
- Issues communicating with professors and peers.
Respondents also reported inaccessible facilities, inaccessible learning materials and difficulty sitting for three-hour classes.
Two out of three students required accommodations. Some who needed accommodations were unable to access them since schools require formal proof of disability — and the students could not afford to pay for assessments.
Public health does not universally cover all diagnostic processes that document disability, making proof cost-prohibitive. Documentation from childhood is often considered “too old” to be acceptable.
Notably, our study found that 60 per cent of the accommodations students needed could be provided for free. We split required accommodations into physical access, the need for extra time or scheduling considerations and social consideration.
Physical access: Respondents required recorded lectures or note-takers. Having lecture slides available in advance was helpful. Better access to required reading materials was frequently mentioned. Video captioning was often not provided and numerous respondents reported a lack of wheelchair accessibility. Finally, testing environments were ill-suited for many students who required settings that are distraction-free.
Time and scheduling: Students reported needing more time for exams and flexibility in assignment due dates. More frequent breaks (especially in three-hour classes), a quiet space for breaks and permission to eat in class and take bathroom breaks as needed were valued. Respondents also noted that absenteeism policies need to be non-punitive when absences are medical.
Changes to classroom or peer interactions: Many respondents required changes to classroom and peer interactions. This included access to front-row seating, having access to written materials before class, having classmates face hearing-impaired students when speaking and being welcomed into work groups instead of being treated as a burden.
Left out of groups and formal events
Since most MBA programs rely heavily on group work, peer attitudes were significant in determining the quality of students’ learning experiences. Just over half of the survey respondents reported that having a disability negatively impacted their campus social life. Nearly 40 per cent reported being left out of formal university social events and over 60 per cent reported being excluded from informal social gatherings.
For example, one wheelchair-using student reported that her program’s social committee organized university-funded events for the whole class in venues that were not wheelchair-accessible six times in a row despite being alerted to the problem.
The accommodations identified highlight the value of creating flexible policies and training faculty and administrators to mitigate barriers.
In noting the broad range of needs and possible accommodations required, we see the importance of treating each person as an individual in order to meet their needs. That said, intensive time pressure and aggressive assignment deadlines were so frequently cited as barriers that they may be a useful point of focus for high-impact, immediate change.
All of these insights can be usefully applied in the corporate and public service sectors as well as educational settings. In addition, a proactive focus on inclusive design can render spaces inherently more disability-friendly so that special accommodations are needed less frequently.
This study demonstrated that students with disabilities are working hard to succeed in their programs. However, current practices make attaining this goal difficult.
By being more attentive to the issues outlined, universities and other organizations can reach a wider talent pool, realize their inclusion objectives and ensure that persons with disabilities have more equitable access to managerial and leadership positions.
- Katherine Breward Associate Professor, Business and Administration, University of Winnipeg
- Daniel Samosh Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto
Katherine Breward would like to acknowledge the generous funding for this research that was provided by CIBC. The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) also provided significant logistical and practical support to enable survey distribution to relevant populations. Katherine Breward is a volunteer Director of Level IT Up, a Winnipeg not-for-profit that provides employment services to young adults who are neurodiverse and face associated barriers to labour market entry.
Daniel Samosh would like to acknowledge the research funding provided by CIBC for this project. He also receives funding for his research as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow from Mitacs and from the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy (CRWDP), which is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded Centre.