It’s important for those seeking to increase meaningful opportunities for students and job seekers with disabilities is the need to expand one’s personal network of contacts. It’s especially useful to expand contacts with those who know about pending career opportunities and sources of talent or who may be aware of those with such knowledge. CareerOneStop has some good information about why networking is so important.
An effective strategy for individuals with disabilities to expand their networks of professional contacts is to complete their profiles on LinkedIn following a proven step-by-step approach. In addition to including volunteer and work experience, it’s also important to identify core skills and to secure endorsements from people with whom they have close personal and/or professional relationships. For LinkedIn to be utilized most effectively, emphasis must be placed on adding value to various contacts, otherwise known as “connections.” This means endorsing specific skills they may have, initiating written recommendations that those individuals may post on their profiles, and immediately corresponding with new connections who either accept their invitations, or who send invitation requests of their own. When communicating with these connections, personal engagement is key. To accomplish this, it’s critical to identify potential collaborative opportunities rather than merely asking for an internship or job outright.
Like the offline world, connections on LinkedIn must be considered as relationships to be cultivated over time. Posting content or writing articles for broad-based distribution is an effective way to highlight personal expertise. It also helps ensure that networking connections have content that interests you at the forefront of their minds. Finally, it’s essential to remain mindful of notifications that come in from LinkedIn including celebrations of work, anniversaries, birthdays, and new positions attained. When these notifications come through, follow up promptly and reach out to begin deeper conversations. You can do this by asking them how they are doing, or by offering to support them by connecting them with someone you know or offering a resource that may benefit them professionally.
Supplementing online networking efforts, students, job seekers, and entrepreneurs with disabilities should expand their contacts through attendance at social and professional events found on MeetUp.com, which often also includes virtual gatherings. Involvement in organizations outside the direct disability context is of extreme importance as well. Those in the nonprofit sector may connect with the National Council of Nonprofits or the Society for Human Resource Management, while federal government career personnel may choose from among 70 employee organizations, including the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the Federal Managers Association (FMA), and the Senior Executives Association (SEA). Entrepreneurs can also benefit by participating in organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation (NRF), Business Network International (BNI), and the Direct Selling Association (DSA).
For career placement professionals, there are many guiding principles that are critical. These include the ability to strengthen trust among job developers who are often competing with one another for job leads and qualified recruits. Also important are engaging in “fair play” by sharing leads and exchanging information and ideas, fostering an environment in which different job placement philosophies may be tolerated to determine areas of common ground, and abiding by high standards of professionalism from the outset. To promote long-term sustainability, leadership roles and responsibilities within the networking group should be clearly documented to create an institutional memory, something that is especially critical considering staff turnover that often exists in the employment placement arena. A collaborative atmosphere should prevail in successful professional networks, and there are several key strategies that have proven extremely beneficial to those who seek to work in partnership rather than against one another.
Key professional networks in the disability employment field include working with those in “customized employment” as well as “supported employment,” most particularly advancing “competitive integrated employment.” Through this type of employment, persons with significant disabilities work alongside individuals without disabilities where workers are paid at or above the minimum wage rather than being subjected to archaic practices in which rehabilitation programs seek minimum wage exemption under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. To support disability and workforce development service providers, refer to Engaging Employers: A Guide for Disability and Workforce Development Service Providers.
Various organizations also have been established to support people of color with disabilities including African Americans, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Latinxs, and Native American and Alaska Native communities.
 “The Rehabilitation Act defines competitive integrated employment as work that is performed on a full-time or part-time basis for which an individual is: (a) compensated at or above minimum wage and comparable to the customary rate paid by the employer to employees without disabilities performing similar duties and with similar training and experience; (b) receiving the same level of benefits provided to other employees without disabilities in similar positions; (c) at a location where the employee interacts with other individuals without disabilities; and (d) presented opportunities for advancement similar to other employees without disabilities in similar positions. See “Competitive Integrated Employment Toolkit,” National Technical Assistance Center on Transition, https://www.autism-society.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Competitive-Integrated-Employment-Toolkit-Full-updated-11-1-18.pdf. To review detailed regulatory language, also see “Competitive Integrated Employment,” Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center, http://www.wintac.org/topic-areas/resources-and-strategies-competitive-integrated-employment/law-reg-and-policy/5.
 In the PandA Pod podcast, hosted by Ron Hager of the National Disability Rights Network, dated 10/21/2020, Mark Schultz, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and delegated the authority of Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, stated, “And for people with disabilities, it’s particularly important, I think, that expectations be raised for everyone so that we’re not satisfied, and people shouldn’t expect to be in subminimal wage jobs, in non-integrated environments. And that’s the importance of competitive integrated environment. It creates an expectation that everyone can and should work, and that we should be looking to maximize the potential of every individual, based on their disability and their unique needs so that they can really be as successful as possible.” https://www.ndrn.org/resource/panda-pod-episode-5. Also see National Disability Rights Network 2011 report, “Real Work: Segregated and Exploited,” https://www.ndrn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Segregated-and-Exploited.pdf.
 For the most current list of organizations that still seek minimum wage exemption under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, see the listings posted by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/workers-with-disabilities/section-14c/certificate-holders.
 The National Council on Disability, the independent federal agency that makes recommendations to Congress and the President on needed changes to disability policy and program implementation, released a report entitled, “Policies from the Past in a Modern Era: The Unintended Consequences of the AbilityOne Program & Section 14(c).” See https://ncd.gov/publications/2020/policies-past-modern-era.
 The Native American Disability Law Center, part of the National Disability Rights Network, has put together a list of resources that may assist Native Americans and Alaska Natives in returning to work. See https://www.nativedisabilitylaw.org. Also, for a directory of Native American vocational rehabilitation programs nationwide, see “American Indian and Alaska Native Vocational Rehabilitation Centers,” Center for Parent Information and Resources, https://www.parentcenterhub.org/aian-voc-rehab-center-contacts.