Access to Success: A Guide for Employers

The Ability Edge Perspective

By Maryon Urquhart, Director, Customer Relations, Career Edge

For employers interested in hiring high potential people for entry-level positions, a significant trend is emerging – graduates with disabilities are in demand. Canada’s major organizations clearly understand the importance of ensuring their workforces reflect the diverse communities in which they operate. As a result, increasing numbers of progressive employers are seeking skilled people with disabilities.

The challenge facing many employers today is how best to recruit qualified college and university graduates with disabilities and then retain them in their workforce.

One way employers are addressing this challenge is by using internships to access and identify graduates with disabilities who are ready to enter Canada’s labour market.

Ability Edge is Canada’s internship program designed for graduates with disabilities who seek career-launching opportunities. The Ability Edge program is run by Career Edge, a not-for-profit, private sector organization that specializes in arranging entry-level internships across Canada for all types of university, college and high school graduates. Career Edge has managed internships for 5,500 graduates since starting in 1996.

Ability Edge is an important part of Career Edge operations. Ability Edge began in 1999 as a pilot project of Career Edge and the Canadian Bankers Association. After the successful pilot, Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) agreed to provide additional funding to Ability Edge as an operation of Career Edge.

As of May 2003, a total of 86 graduates with disabilities have worked as Ability Edge interns at major employers, including Bell Canada, BMO Financial Group, CIBC, General Motors of Canada, NCR, Noranda, RBC Financial Group, Scotiabank, Sprint Canada and TD Bank Financial Group.

The results from Ability Edge are encouraging. Approximately 60 per cent of Ability Edge interns have gained permanent employment at the organizations that hosted their internships. This clearly indicates the value that Ability Edge interns bring to the workplace.

Much of this success is due to the support that Ability Edge interns receive throughout their six-, nine- or 12-month internships. Career Edge and the organizations that host interns work together to:

  • incorporate career-building responsibilities into each Ability Edge internship;
  • provide on-the-job coaching;
  • offer career counselling services, as required.

These services help smooth out what can be a difficult transition from school to the workplace and give interns the experience and confidence they need to excel in a professional environment. Some of the best practices instituted by Ability Edge hosts can apply to any employer. These include:

Start at the top. The best organizations set specific recruitment goals for hiring people with disabilities. These goals receive high-level support within the organization, usually from the CEO or another top decision-maker. These goals extend to individual departments, are integral – not an optional extra – to departments’ annual plans and are linked to executives’ compensation. Good intentions are not enough to open the doors to new talent with disabilities. The key is to take clear action, then provide rewards and recognition when recruitment goals are achieved.

Coordinate the effort. Top-down initiatives often start the process. To continue the momentum, the best organizations synchronize their recruitment and accommodation efforts across departments and lines of business. One effective tactic is to provide central funding to cover the costs of any necessary accommodation services. Another way is to share information about assistive technologies, such as what computer programs are available and supported by an organization’s IT department, and make this knowledge known throughout all divisions.

Offer wide-ranging opportunities. A key success factor with Ability Edge internships is the positions available encompass a variety of fields. Internships range from technology-related intranet support positions, to commerce-based marketing analysts/assistants, to liberal arts-trained HR specialists. This allows interns with disabilities to find responsible positions that fit their skills, training and interests throughout an organization, rather than being restricted to designated departments that may lack career-building potential.

Develop HR proactivity. Effective human resources departments take the lead in assisting interns and new hires with disabilities. This proactivity begins early in the selection process, such as by raising the issue of accommodation at the initial recruitment stage and identifying the specific tools a person with special needs requires to do the job. Organizations deliver a powerful message of support when their HR staff follow through and have those tools in place for an intern’s or employee’s first day. Such support is further enhanced when HR professionals regularly contact the person with a disability. For example, when an Ability Edge internship nears completion, a best practice developed by effective HR departments is to take the initiative and identify suitable job opportunities across their organizations, not just within one department, then make those opportunities known to the intern.

Provide ongoing support. Access to on-the-job training and mentoring are integral to each Ability Edge internship and a significant contributor to the success of our interns and host organizations. We’ve found that, in addition to providing an encouraging coach and/or supervisor, interns with disabilities benefit greatly from two additional, yet low-cost, support services. One is having access to affinity groups of colleagues. The other is meeting senior level people who have similar disabilities. Being mentored by a role model within an organization or profession – someone who can provide perspective on career development – is among the most powerful ways to ensure people with disabilities do well in their workplace.

Despite such best practices, the marketplace for graduates with disabilities remains extremely fragmented. Connecting employers and graduates with disabilities remains a major challenge. In fact, the number of Ability Edge internships across Canada is currently limited by the scarcity of qualified intern candidates, not by the opportunities.

Among the challenges is the definition and self-identification of graduates with disabilities. At Ability Edge, we’ve seen that graduates with disabilities can be reluctant to associate with specific programs for people with disabilities. There’s a good reason for this. Many graduates with disabilities have found ways to cope with their disabilities and don’t require accommodation at work. These individuals want to take on mainstream responsibilities when they enter the workforce, without the risk of being categorized into special positions.

Ability Edge internships, like all Career Edge internships, are designed to be entry-level opportunities that build futures. Each placement becomes an example to employers that internships create value in their workplace, while interns gain workplace experience and skills that will last throughout their careers.

Due to employer demand for high-potential graduates with disabilities, landing an Ability Edge internship has become less competitive than a conventional Career Edge internship. As of mid- 2003, the ratio between graduates registered for internships and actual internship opportunities available across Canada was 40 to 1 for Ability Edge, compared to 400 to 1 for Career Edge. Despite these favourable conditions, reaching graduates with disabilities remains difficult. At many education institutions, the on-campus career centres operate separately from the offices set up to assist students with disabilities. Dealing with two departments doubles the amount of effort required by employers seeking candidates and by graduates with disabilities seeking jobs.

To address this, Ability Edge continues to partner with education institutions, employers and community agencies, including NEADS, to stimulate greater awareness, communication and cooperation about internships and broader employment/workplace issues. By forging effective working relationships between organizations, all stakeholders can streamline the recruitment process.

An example of an effective practice to accelerate the recruitment and hiring process is circulating electronic internship postings and notifications of opportunities to targeted career centres. To expand the candidate pool, Ability Edge is now using e-mail alerts, which augment the web-based recruitment and application process launched in 2002 for Career Edge.

As Canada’s leading national internship program for graduates with disabilities, Ability Edge is positioned to help maximize this country’s human resource potential. Our aim is to work with employers, prospective interns and all types of employment-oriented agencies to promote the internship experience as a low-risk, cost-effective and viable way for graduates with disabilities to gain permanent, fulfilling jobs.

How Ability Edge Works

Ability Edge is a program that links employers and graduates with disabilities who seek career- launching opportunities. By working as Ability Edge interns, qualified graduates gain up to 12 months of workplace experience. Ability Edge is operated by Career Edge, a not-for-profit organization that has managed internships for 5,500 graduates at more than 850 companies.

  • Employers, known as “hosts,” work with Career Edge/Ability Edge to design entry-level internships that include meaningful responsibilities, plus on-the-job coaching.
  • These internships, which are for six-, nine- or 12-months, are posted on the Career Edge/Ability Edge website and at appropriate community agencies and/or college/university career centres.
  • Graduates register on-line with Career Edge/Ability Edge and apply to internships.
  • Career Edge pre-screens candidates who apply to Ability Edge internships.
  • The host interviews candidates and selects an intern.
  • The selected interns become employees of Career Edge and work directly at their hosts. As of mid-2003, the stipend Career Edge pays each intern is $1,500/month.

More information about the program is available at