Text Size

The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Employers! Stand Up For What You Believe In! - Challenge the perceptions of disability in the workplace and explore the transition of graduates with disabilities into employment

Mary Quirke

Assistant Director, AHEAD

About the Author

Leslee O’Loughlin

Enterprise Rent-A-Car

About the Author

Ask yourself if you believe the following to be true or false?

  • Graduates with a disability need to be more prepared when starting in the workplace
  • Graduates with a disability present differently at interview
  • Graduates with a disability are prepared for work, but they are not prepared to discuss their disability (disclosure)
  • Technology really makes all the difference for a graduate with a disability?
  • The employer gets to decide what a reasonable accommodation is

There has been considerable change over the past decade in the education and employment of people with disabilities and specific learning difficulties. Greater numbers of students with disabilities consider their options in higher education with a view to accessing professional and graduate jobs. There are now 9,000+ students with disabilities in higher education in Ireland, but what is most interesting is the variety of courses that these students are engaged in. Initiatives from Government in the form of equality legislation, grants, additional funding, additional resource teachers and support assistants mean that students with disabilities now, more than ever, have a real chance succeeding in education. Out of this success they, of course, have expectations of exciting careers.

Employers too are increasingly aware of the benefits of a diverse pool of talent. People with different and new ideas and those that can bring something new to an organisation are highly valued. However, while there is a greater awareness of the diversity of graduates available, including those graduates with a disability, have recruitment practices kept apace with these developments? Leslee O’Loughlin together with Mary Quirke set out to explore this question.


A little bit of background: WAM (Willing, Able Mentoring) is a project of AHEAD that promotes access to the mainstream labour market for graduates with disabilities using a structured mentored work placement method. This support structure enables graduates with disabilities and employers to engage in a positive, reciprocal learning experience together.

The primary object of the WAM Programme is to ensure employers understand disability with a goal of creating attitudinal change. This in turn generates more opportunities for employment for graduates with disabilities and results in improved mainstream inclusive practices and policies. To this end WAM has delivered 250+ placements to date. This means that 250+ teams have gained experience of working with a graduate with a disability. For over 10 years now the WAM team has provided training to 600+ professionals; been cited by the NDA, Amnesty International and Eurofound as a model of good practice; and resulted in 45% of graduates progressing to full-time work.

The benefits of mentoring

From the beginning, WAM has emphasised the benefits of its structured mentoring program. Mentoring is core to the learning on the WAM placement – it is the space where employers can learn a little bit more about the impact of disability in the workplace and can ask the questions they need to ask safely. While on the one hand graduates with disabilities can explore what the workplace has to offer, sometimes for the first time in a graduate level position, on the other hand employers can see inclusive practice in action and learn from the experience. It is these employers and graduates with disabilities who are leading positive change in attitudes; it is they who recognise the benefits of learning from each other. Bringing different perspectives together to sometimes challenge long held beliefs about disability in the workplace can make for some very interesting conversations and learning.

While the mentoring program was initially a face-to-face training session which took place over 2 to 3 days, over the past 10 years the expectations for training in the workplace have evolved. In recognition of this, WAM together with the support of Enterprise Rent-A-Car have developed the training into an online version, so that it is easily accessed by mentors and meets the needs of the workplace.

Together with its employer leaders, including Enterprise Rent-ACar, WAM is rethinking the workplace.

Let’s hear the employer’s perspective

Ms Leslee O’Loughlin

Leslee, tell us a little bit about your company?

Enterprise Rent-A-Car (ERAC) is part of the larger Enterprise Holdings. We are the largest car rental service provider in the world, have 16 billion in revenue worldwide and over 80,000 employees. We are a privately held company, owned by the Taylor family from St. Louis Missouri.

Who and what do you recruit?

We recruit graduates into our management training program because Enterprise promotes almost 100% from within. Most of our senior management team world-wide began their careers as trainees, learning to run the business in one of our local offices. In Ireland and the UK we are actually one of the largest graduate recruiters, recruiting from all disciplines - business, finance, humanities, marketing, HR – you name it!

What do you look for?

While we are looking for graduates - we are not looking for any specific degree. We recruit across all disciplines specifically honing in on key competencies and interests such as the drive to be entrepreneurial, the dream of running a business, and the ability to sell and influence others. In essence we are teaching the graduate everything they need to know about running the business, and to be a successful business leader. We promote based on performance so if a graduate has the interest and ambition to be a business person and they meet minimum performance expectations - we support and develop that ambition.

What has been your experience with disabled people?

We have hired employees directly from university and also from the WAM program, we have partnered with AHEAD for a number of years now to develop our knowledge and understanding of disability so that we can be a more inclusive employer. As an employer we have also supported employees with acquired disabilities by accommodating their needs through different initiatives. Without sharing any particular story we aim to be open and communicate with employees themselves, to be flexible and to challenge our own perceptions of disability.

What have you changed as a result of your learning?

We have learned that it can be a challenge - with regard to disability not all employees have the same needs so we seek not to make assumptions. We have reviewed our processes including recruitment and appraisal, to ensure that we are in line with best practices and are more inclusive. We have also engaged in bespoke training for our senior management team and our hiring managers to ensure that we are fostering an inclusive culture and leading from the front. Most importantly we are open to continuing to change.

As you are aware WAM is a program that has engaged with employers for over 10 years now. We have learned much about recruitment and expectations of both the employer and the graduate. Let’s discuss our experiences with a particular focus on the following statements – are they myths or truths?

Graduates with a disability need to be more prepared when starting in the workplace.

Mary: It’s true that graduates with disabilities have different considerations to other graduates. They first of all need to think about the topic of disclosure – do they or don’t they speak about their disability. Furthermore they need to consider how they might explain their curriculum vitae or application form - a lack of work experience or the lack of an Erasmus program, gaps in their experience due to illness or lack of hobbies if their disability prevented them from engaging in such things. What do employers need to do?

Leslee: Employers also need to prepare for this; they need to be able to engage in the dialogue in an appropriate way about disability and the necessary accommodations. The graduate is the best person to advise an employer in what will enable them to reach their full potential. This has to be an open and honest dialogue and we have to be ready to listen.

Graduates with a disability present differently at interview

Mary: Graduates with a disability have a different story to that of their peers so it’s true they need to be ready to discuss that story while presenting their competencies. It is also often the case that they underestimate what they actually have to offer – their ability to multitask, organise, and negotiate or other such skills that they rely on every day. What is most notable is that they need to be comfortable with their experiences and be able to talk to them. As their experiences are often not typical they need to prepare differently. Again, what do employers need to do?

Leslee: A truly inclusive employer should be able to identify the transferable skills that a candidate with a disability is communicating or presenting during an interview. Often the achievements and atypical experiences of these candidates relate specifically to many of the traditional core competencies relative to graduate roles. While it might be an atypical experience - it is just outside of their typical candidate experience. Employers need to approach any dialogue with an open mind and a position of advocacy. They need to ask themselves - how do you ‘screen in rather than screen out?!’

Graduates with a disability are prepared for work, but they are not prepared to discuss their disability (disclosure)

Mary: It is true that disclosure is not easy. Disability is something that can make both parties in a conversation feel uncomfortable. When engaged in the recruitment process, a traditional process whereby an individual wants to present their abilities and motivations in the best manner possible, disability can be perceived as a weakness. What graduates need to know is that they, more than anyone, understand how they do things and achieve results. They know what they need in order to get the job done. In this scenario disability is more than just a label – it is about understanding the job that needs to be done and also being able to discuss how this can be achieved. And again – what do employers need to do?

Leslee: But it’s a myth to suggest people just aren’t prepared to discuss disclosure. Again this is where the dialogue is critical - an employer should have the confidence to engage openly with the candidate and they should be prepared to listen to what the graduate is saying.

Another aspect that impacts on disclosure and disability at work is the work itself. Often recruiters and hiring managers might not be familiar with all the aspects of a job - in fact that is why we recruit across all disciplines. A great and successful business person might not be studying business. We have learned to recognise that it is about what a person wants from their career. What they can bring and how they best achieve results. That is why we in Enterprise can engage with a graduate with a disability and offer opportunity irrespective of how they need to work.

Technology really makes all the difference for a graduate with a disability?

Mary: Yes and no – it depends on the job and what needs to be done. What might need to be reviewed are the considerations about how someone can use technology in the workplace – particularly if recording devices are being used. It is a good idea to have a code of conduct and to go over this with the graduate.

Leslee: More importantly an employer should not make assumptions that they will have to transform their business at a great cost and thereby screen out a qualified candidate. Uninformed assumptions are often made around technology; around issues such as cost and usage which can put the candidate at a disadvantage in the recruitment process itself. More often accommodations are simple and technology is basic - adaptions can be minimal.

The employer gets to decide what a reasonable accommodation is

Mary: While employers do have a say on cost and also what is appropriate – it is not just about who decides if the employer employee relationship is going to work. It is good practice to have an open and honest conversation whereby all parties are involved in deciding what is best. A needs assessment contributes to this and puts a framework in place. In the event of a disagreement, there are factors that need to be reviewed such as what is appropriate, what is safe and the legislation that covers these issues. And yet again - what does an employer need to do?!

Leslee: Again, engaging in an honest dialogue with a candidate is best. Honest and open communication sets both the candidate and employer up to win.

Mary: Finally Leslee – what would you say to the statement

traditional recruitment methods do not work for graduates with a disability

Leslee: It is true - employers need to be willing and prepared to adapt their recruitment processes. This will allow them to better assess the competencies of a graduate with a disability. It is a one size fits one philosophy not a one size fits all across recruitment.

We need to apply this across all our recruitment or we will just screen out the best candidates, disability or not!

In conclusion

The inclusiveness and flexibility of the mainstream labour market still has a long way to go to fully tap into this new talent pool, as traditionally people with disabilities have been seen as burdens rather than resources. This is particularly notable in professional areas such as teaching, engineering, professional health care and other areas. There are still fears for employers around legislation, supports required and work productivity. This thinking needs to shift. Together with our employers we are seeking to learn more and address these issues.

This article is based on a presentation delivered by Leslee O’Loughlin of Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Mary Quirke of AHEAD at the LINK conference in Sweden, September 2014 and the NADP conference in the UK in July 2015.

Share Article #AHEADjournal

Search AHEAD Journal


Follow AHEAD

  • Follow AHEAD on Twitter
  • Join AHEAD on Facebook
  • See AHEAD on YouTube
  • Link in with AHEAD on Linked In

Get Email Updates 

Ilikecake Ltd
This article appeared in the AHEAD Journal. Visit www.ahead.ie/journal for more information