Why aren’t youth with disabilities applying to jobs?


Friends talking while walking together.

Employers are doing great work to create inclusive and accommodating workplaces, but it’s not always translating to their recruitment materials.

When young job seekers with disabilities see information about a job opportunity, they need to see a message that instills some confidence that the workplace is a place where they belong. Without seeing this message, it’s hard for youth with disabilities to muster up the mental and emotional energy to put in a strong application.

Learning how to “adult” is exhausting

The youth-to-adulthood transition is loaded with change. Young people are forming their identity while learning to build independence, autonomy, and critical life skills. For youth with disabilities, there’s the added necessity of learning how to advocate for needs and navigate barriers.

All this transitional growth and learning happens within the context of changing environments, relationships, and priorities. This can be an exciting time but it’s also overwhelming and exhausting—especially for youth who struggle to manage stress and remain grounded in feelings of safety and security.

Mental health challenges are impacting capacity to manage job search

With rising mental health challenges in our youth population, I’ll venture to say that this sense of overwhelm is a shared experience among most disabled youth.

I led the Youth Survey Report (opens PDF file), a research project at CanAssist at the University of Victoria that surveyed 463 youth with disabilities from across British Columbia. We asked about barriers they faced during their job search, and the top response was “limited personal capacity.” Youth described how things like anxiety, low confidence, low self esteem, feelings of intimidation, and fear of stigma discouraged them from applying to jobs on online job banks.

Online job postings are sending the wrong message

The online job application process is filled with rejection and uncertainty. For disabled youth, it’s too much of a guessing game to justify the level of energy needed to overpower the fear and anxiety they feel around applying.

A common experience for youth is coming across a posting and being put off from applying because the posting itself is inaccessible and gives no sign of what the potential employment experience will be like. Is the workplace accessible? Is the employer open and inclusive? Will they accommodate my needs? Will my co-workers accept me? Will I be judged because I need extra help?

The answers to these questions are not in a job posting. These unknowns are unsettling to youth who are struggling to manage their mental health. Because of these big question marks, youth with disabilities are preserving their mental and emotional energy by not applying to the jobs they are interested in.

How can we support the future workforce apply to jobs?

In today’s complex modern world, mental and emotional energy are valuable resources that need protecting—especially for disabled youth who are navigating major life transition. To be truly inclusive and accommodating, employers need to recognize and honour this reality in their recruitment materials.

They need to think beyond EDI and inclusion statements and consider meaningful indicators that signal to youth with disabilities that they are wanted. Things like incorporating storytelling about past workplace accommodations they’ve implemented or including information about staff trainings around accessibility. Something tangible that communicates to disabled youth that their needs and experiences are accepted in the space. This will help them feel confident that the energy they need to expend to apply to the job is worth the effort.

Sarah Molder (she/her) is an accessibility professional with 7 years of experience leading complex and innovative projects in the nonprofit sector. Her work has revolved around program development and project management—with a focus on creating meaningful employment support experiences for youth and adults with disabilities. As a young professional who has learned to navigate the working world with high anxiety, she brings a youth-advocate lens to her work and a passion for creating conditions that support the next generation to thrive in their employment.