Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Career Development:
Improving Options and Opportunities for Women With Disabilities


Lauren Lindstrom is an Assistant Professor and Senior Research Associate, College of Education, University of Oregon, Eugene

Career development is the process of identifying and refining career goals. Traditional career development theories often describe career choice as a one-time event that is logical and linear. However, for women with disabilities the career development process is more complex. Making a decision about employment options means taking into account a number of interrelated factors including individual abilities and disabilities, family support, opportunities for education and training, and barriers and supports in the workplace (Lindstrom, Benz, & Doren, 2004). Career aspirations also unfold and change over time. Over the course of a lifetime, a woman with a disability may make numerous career decisions and follow a number of career paths. Her experiences and options may be constrained by disability and gender barriers and her career decision-making process will most likely be multifaceted, discontinuous, and unpredictable (Szymanski, Enright, Hershenson, & Ettinger, 2003; Noonan et al., 2004).

What do employment and education professionals need to know about career development to help women with disabilities make informed career choices and achieve positive employment outcomes? This brief article provides information about career choice and career advancement, and includes strategies for proactive career development for women with a variety of disabilities.

Career Choice

Choosing an occupation is a critical piece of career development. Most individuals with disabilities want the opportunity to work in the community, and holding a job can contribute to self-esteem and personal satisfaction (Szymanski et al., 2003). Career choice is also highly related to an individual's self-concept, which can be defined as "who one is and who one is not. Self-concept also includes who one expects or would like to be"(Gottfredson, 1981, p. 547).

Women with disabilities face a double jeopardy situation when selecting a meaningful career. Their options may be limited by gender roles as well as disability stereotypes. Although women have made many advances in entering male-dominated fields such as law and medicine, many occupations are still divided along traditional gender lines. For example, more than 90% of preschool and kindergarten teachers, secretaries, and housekeepers are women, while women represent only a small proportion of workers in the well-paid skilled trades and protective occupations such as police officers and firefighters (Betz, 2005). Low expectations for individuals with disabilities, lack of family support, and disability discrimination may further limit employment options for women with disabilities preparing to either enter the workforce or make a career change. Thus the "choice" of a job is by default a selection from a narrow range of options.

Career Advancement

Despite the restricted range of career options, there are countless benefits for women with disabilities who are employed. First, working outside the home allows women to develop their unique abilities and talents, and contributes to personal fulfillment and positive psychological adjustment (Betz, 2005). Exposure to a variety of occupations can also help women further define and refine career goals, and explore a wider variety of potential career options. In addition, making a positive contribution in the workplace builds skills and confidence and increases potential for future advancement and higher wage opportunities (Lindstrom et al., 2004).

In her study of high-achieving women with physical and sensory disabilities, Noonan (2004) and her colleagues examined a number of important influences on career development. The majority of the participants displayed a strong self-concept that allowed them to maintain self-confidence and determination to succeed despite numerous barriers. Many described themselves as "persistent, determined, or tenacious" (Noonan et al., 2004, p. 73) when faced with discrimination, lack of accommodations, pay inequities, or general discouragement for their careers. All the women in the study also identified the importance of ongoing tangible and emotional support from peers, supervisors, family, and friends. Other researchers have confirmed the important role that female mentors and role models can play in encouraging career stability and advancement for women with disabilities (Lindstrom & Benz, 2002; Betz, 2005).

Strategies for Success

There are a number of strategies that employment and education professionals can use to assist women with disabilities in obtaining meaningful employment and achieving career success. The following suggestions encompass career decision-making and career advancement:  

  • Career Information. Offer individual or group sessions that include topics such as (a) occupational knowledge, (b) self-knowledge, (c) disability awareness, (d) career decision-making skills, (e) gender roles/stereotypes, and (f) role of family and friends in career development.
  • Career Exploration. Create opportunities for more extensive exploration prior to selecting a job placement. Offer hands-on learning experiences and/or paid or non-paid community-based work experience to broaden the range of options considered.
  • Coping Skills. Help women with disabilities develop individual attributes that contribute to career success such as persistence, flexibility, optimism, self-reliance, problem-solving skills, decision-making strategies, goal setting, risk taking, and empowerment.
  • Career Choice. Stress decisions that eliminate the fewest options and develop all possibilities, including those not reinforced by gender stereotyping. Provide assistance in applying for nontraditional, technical and other high wage jobs.
  • Job Matching. Focus on obtaining jobs that are a good "fit," that utilize strengths and abilities, and provide opportunities for advancement.
  • Job Environment. Identify needed accommodations, and address environmental, social or attitudinal barriers early in the job placement process. Clarify performance expectations and evaluation procedures.
  • Education and Training. Provide opportunities to learn on the job or enroll in continuing training to be able to advance. Encourage high quality and extensive education and training. Consider technical schools, and two-year and community college programs.
  • Workplace Support. Utilize peers, supervisors, and other colleagues to develop support systems at work. Encourage and/or provide opportunities for women with disabilities to develop connections with female mentors and role models. 

With the right combination of skills and supports, women with disabilities can be highly successful in achieving their career goals.

  • Betz, N. (2005). Women’s career development. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 255–277). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

  • Gottfredson, L. (1981). Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 545–579.

  • Lindstrom, L., & Benz, M. (2002). Phases of career development: Case studies of young women with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 69, 67–83.

  • Lindstrom, L., Benz, M., & Doren, B. (2004). Expanding career options for young women with learning disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 27(1), 43–63.

  • Noonan, B., Gallor, S., Hensler-McGinnis, N., Fassinger, R., Wang, S., & Goodman, J. (2004). Challenge and success: A qualitative study of the career development of highly achieving women with physical and sensory disabilities. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51(1), 68–80.

  • Szymanski, E., Enright, M., Hershenson, D., & Ettinger, J. (2003). Career development theories, constructs and research: Implications for people with disabilities. In E. M. Szymanski & R. M. Parker (Eds.), Work and disability: Issues and strategies in career development and job placement, 2nd ed (pp. 91–153). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.