Employers’ perspectives of working with adolescents with disabilities

Sally Lindsay, Suzanne Robinson, Carolyn Mcdougall, Robyn Sanford and Tracey Adams


Sally Lindsay, Suzanne Robinson, Carolyn Mcdougall, Robyn Sanford and Tracey Adams


Most research exploring employers’ views of hiring workers with disabilities focuses on adults while little is known about employers’ experiences of working with disabled youth. The purpose of this study was to explore employers’ views of supervising an adolescent with a disability as a part of an employment training program. Employers (n=33) who supervised an adolescent with a disability who was enrolled in an employment-training program at a children’s rehabilitation hospital were surveyed. Although some employers had initial concerns about accommodations and workload they reported an overall positive experience working with these youth, which helped improve their perceptions about people with disabilities in the workplace. Most employers reported positive perceptions from their experience supervising a youth with a disability in the context of this employment training program.


Employers’ perceptions of people with disabilities play a key role in whether they are hired and how they are treated in the workplace (Morgan et al. 2005). Evidence on employers’ experiences of working with people with disabilities is mixed. Some studies report positive attitudes toward people with a disability (Graffam et al. 2002; Hernandez et al. 2000; Kregal and Unger 1993; Levy et al. 1992) and numerous benefits of having them on staff (Gilbride et al. 2003; Hunt and Hunt 2004; McFarlin et al. 1991; Morgan et al. 2005). Others report concerns over the cost (Kaye et al. 2011; Siperstein et al. 2006; Unger 2002), safety and potential litigation (Berry 1995; Kaye et al. 2011; Unger 2002), the appropriateness of a job (Hernandez et al. 2000), and amount of supervision and training. Negative attitudes towards people with disabilities can also limit their employment opportunities (Berry 1995; Kaye et al. 2011; Lindsay 2011; Unger 2002). Although much attention has focused on employment of adults with disabilities, little is known about employers’ experiences in working with youth.


A descriptive qualitative methodology was used to examine employers’ perspectives of working with adolescents with disabilities while drawing on brief questionnaires. The sample was drawn from an employment training program run through a children’s rehabilitation hospital in Ontario, Canada. Ethical consent was obtained from the hospital’s research ethics board.

Youth aged 16-19 with a diagnosed disability participated in a 12-month employment training program. The objective of the employment training program is to enable youth with disabilities to explore career interests and develop life skills through work experience placements, skill building workshops; individual assessment, counseling, coaching; and peer mentor meetings (see Lindsay et al. 2012 for a full description of the program). Supports (e.g., equipment, job coaches) are provided to youth and employers as needed. Participants are paid an honorarium at the end of the program and workplace insurance is provided.

Community-based employers who participated in this program (see Table 1) were chosen based on youth’s interests and abilities. All employers who supervised a youth with a disability from this program over a three-year period (n=45) were sent a questionnaire (see Table 2) as part of the follow-up evaluation. Thirty-three questionnaires were completed for a response rate of 73%.

We analyzed the descriptive statistics of the first four questions of the survey. To analyze the four open-ended questions, we used a qualitative analysis approach whereby two members of the research team read through each of the responses several times to develop a list of common themes (Green and Thorogood 2004). A constant comparison method was used with continual adjustment throughout the research process. Analytical decisions made during the analysis were documented in an audit trail.


Employers provided placements for youth with disabilities in a number of different settings (see Table 1). Most employers felt well prepared before the youth arrived (see Table 2). All of the employers felt they received enough support from the employment training program staff during the youth’s placement. Most employers commented that supervising a youth with a disability did not take up much additional time. The majority of employers said they would participate in the youth training program again.


Nine employers had initial concerns about accommodating youth with a disability, especially with respect to the time and effort it took to integrate the youth into work settings. The primary concerns for employers often centered on physical accommodations to enable youth to move around the office space in their wheelchair or walker.

Minor accommodations were often made to the workspaces including switching office chairs, adjusting the desk height, modifying work schedules and breaks. Some of the employers needed to make the workplace more accessible: “We realized we weren’t as accessible as we thought we were” (#8). Employers were often willing to make accommodations. For example, “We are now working toward making our building more accessible to a larger community” (#22). Another employer similarly claimed, “It made me think about the accessibility of our centre (i.e., door way sizes, equipment storage)” (#25).

Workload content and quantity

Matching youth with a suitable amount of work was a gradual process for many employers. Some felt the workload could have been tailored more appropriately or broken down: “Learning the scope of work that was suitable for the participant and thinking about tasks as a series of steps” (#20). Meanwhile, working with a youth with a disability taught employers that “people learn at their own pace and style. It taught me to be more patient” (#26).

Experiences and attitudes

Most employers recalled a pleasant experience working with youth with disabilities and commented on their positive attitude. For example, “His friendly, positive attitude is a particular area of strength and impressed all his co-workers” (#1). Other employers commented on their customers’ response to the disabled youth in the workplace.

Several employers described the opportunity to improve their mentoring skills and share knowledge with the youth. Indeed, one employer commented how they developed “more sensitivity and awareness of just how easy it is to incorporate them in the workplace” (#25). For many of the employers this was their first experience working with a person with a disability.

Several employers reported experiencing a shift in their perceptions about people with disabilities: “It re-organized our department’s way of thinking. I feel much more comfortable interacting with someone with a disability, feeling less awkward or unsure of what to do” (#5). The opportunity to work with youth with disabilities often helped employers to realize their abilities and contributions to their work environment. “It was good for my team. It helps them get exposure to people with disabilities” (#3). Other employers described that employing a youth with a disability was good for their staff because “She was able to bring some more diversity to the group and sparked discussion among the children regarding different abilities” (#7). In some cases, these shifting perceptions sparked a new understanding of accessibility and highlighted areas for improvement. Even employers who had prior experience working with a disabled youth said they had not realized their full potential until they saw their skills in action.

Some employers conveyed being positively surprised by the skill level of these youth. The underestimation of their skills may have been a result of employers’ stereotyping them or recognizing they may not have as many skill building opportunities compared to their peers.

I underestimated her ability to work in a real business environment with adults and real tasks. She was respectful and professional throughout (#29).

One of the employers had an opportunity to see the youth had roles beyond their disability. Such encounters helped to shape positive attitudes towards youth with disabilities, as described by the employers in our study. An employer said, “[He] seemed to see there are real opportunities to put his skills and life experiences to work in productive ways” (#22).

Discussion and Conclusion

Our findings show that within the context of this employment training program most employers felt well prepared for supervising a young employee with disabilities. Some employers had initial concerns about employing a youth with a disability especially with regards to physical accommodations and work content and quality. This is consistent with past research showing that employers often have concerns about hiring a person with a disability citing factors such as appropriateness of a job, supervision and accommodations (Morgan et al. 2005; Siperstein et al. 2006).

Most employers reported more favorable attitudes about people with disabilities. Past research also shows that employers who have hired an employee with a disability are likely to be more positive about hiring a worker with a disability in the future (Gilbride et al. 2003; Siperstein et al. 2006). This emphasizes the importance of employers having an opportunity to work with a person with a disability because it can help to break down negative stereotypes (Kaye et al. 2011). Indeed, paid employment is an important opportunity for youth to build skills and to feel valued (Lindsay et al. 2012).

This study is limited in that the findings are suggestive rather than generalizable due to the small sample. Further, the negative aspects of working with youth with disabilities may also be under-reported because the employers involved in our employment program may have been more positive about people with disabilities to begin with. Nevertheless, our findings are consistent with past research.

There are several directions for future research. First, more research is needed on how employer experiences of working with youth with disabilities may vary by type of organization (e.g., private, public, charity), the size of the organization and the type of job performed. It would be useful to understand the concerns employers may have about hiring youth with disabilities and the factors leading an employer to offer employment opportunities for disabled youth.

Clinical implications

Our findings have implications for rehabilitation and life skills teams in designing more effective programs and services. First, structured programs with short-term support for employers particularly around accommodations and type of work may increase the availability of training opportunities for young people with disabilities. Second, an examination of employers' perceptions may also generate information to guide educational efforts directed at reducing fears, strengthening services provided by rehabilitation and employment programs, and establishing mechanisms for communication between educators, service providers and business professionals. Outside the context of structured youth employment programs, families, school staff and rehabilitation service providers can assist the youth they support to understand what concerns employers may have about hiring a person with a disability as a student, volunteer or employee. By raising potential concerns frankly and addressing them, employers may be reassured and more open to hiring.


Funding for this employment training program is made possible by annual donor funding by Capital One. Funding for the data analysis of this paper was provided by a Bloorview Research Institute start-up grant.


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Table I Work placements of disabled youth

Community Placements

Aquatics Program

Adult rehabilitation hospital


Charity organization

Community centre

Day care

Human resources office

Inclusive design firm

Law office

Radio station

Retail stores (hardware, movies, pet store)

Television station

Women's shelter

Visual Impairment

Table II Employer’s perceptions about employing a youth with a disability

Community Placements

Did you feel well prepared before your participant arrived?

Not well prepared

1 (3%)

Somewhat prepared

9 (27%)

Well prepared

23 (69%)

Did you receive enough support from the employment training program staff during the placement?

Not enough



33 (100%)

Too much


To what extent did supervising a disabled youth add to your workload?

Not much additional time

11 (33%)

A manageable amount of time

21 (63%)

Would you supervise a youth with a disability again


21* (87.5%)


1 (4%)


2 (8.3%)

*Totals for this question are different because it was only asked in one year of the program.


Dr. Sally Lindsay PhD
Bloorview Research Institute Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital 150 Kilgour Road Toronto, Ontario M4G 1R8

Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Graduate Department of Rehabilitation Science University of Toronto, Ontario Canada
Email: slindsay@hollandbloorview.ca

Suzanne Robinson, Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, Ontario

Carolyn Mcdougall, Centre for Participation and Inclusion, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto, Ontario Canada; and Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Robyn Sanford, Centre for Participation and Inclusion, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto, Ontario Canada

Dr. Tracey Adams, Department of Sociology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada


International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 11, No. 1
ISSN 1703-3381