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The Fourth Industrial Revolution: helping students with disabilities to thrive

October 2018

Advancements in technology could open up new opportunities for disabled graduates, although support is needed to ensure they can access training and secure full-time positions

At the recent 2018 Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) conference, Keren Coney (Keele University) and Christian Jameson-Warren (Loughborough University) of the AGCAS Disability Task Group (DTG) delivered a presentation on preparing students with disabilities for the emerging industrial era known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This article aims to summarise some of the key findings about the current destinations of graduates with disabilities as well as the opportunities and challenges posed by impending and predicted changes in the workplace.

What Happens Next? 2018

Each year, AGCAS commissions DTG to carry out a study into the destinations of disabled graduates, which results in the annual What Happens Next? report. The most recent report highlights that there are once again notable differences in the outcomes of disabled and non-disabled graduates. For instance, disabled graduates are:

  • less likely to be in full-time employment and more likely to be in part-time employment. Poorer progression rates into full-time employment are a recurring theme in What Happens Next? reports
  • less likely to be employed on a permanent contract - postgraduate researchers being an exception
  • more likely to pursue further study
  • more likely to pursue self-employment
  • earning less than non-disabled graduates on average, in both employment and self-employment.

For a more detailed version of the report, see The destinations of disabled graduates.

Disability and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Complementing these findings, current labour market trends and research from the World Economic Forum (WEF)1 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)2 were used to try and predict, as accurately as possible, the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on graduates with disabilities entering the workforce. While the findings infer that opportunities have increased, they also reveal potential threats:

  • Growing innovation and technological change may cause polarisation between highly-skilled and non-skilled jobs, with 'middle' jobs disappearing. While this may present new opportunities for skilled people regardless of their circumstances, some graduates may find securing full-time suitable employment increasingly difficult.
  • An increase in wealth generation has brought with it a greater wealth divide, so while there may be opportunities to rectify earning discrepancies for some, this could potentially become a more pronounced issue.
  • Increased flexible working practises, with jobs 'de-bundled' into smaller tasks and global demand for skills, may lead to increased opportunities for graduates with disabilities to find work that suits their specific circumstances (such as more focus on specific strengths and less on weaknesses). Being able to work remotely also means being able to apply for more opportunities. Alternatively, this could result in more 'gig' economy-style working rather than consistent, full-time employment.
  • As jobs evolve, some roles will be lost and some skills will become obsolete. This will be a challenge for graduates who, because of their disability, are unable to access suitable training in their profession (such as those who do not secure skilled employment early in their career) or easily adapt to changing circumstances.

Of course, no one can accurately predict the future, but having read several relevant reports this is the most precise picture we can draw. It should also be added that there seems to be an increasing awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people.3 Membership of organisations such as enei enables employers of all sizes to be more forward-thinking in their inclusion of those with disability.

Skills needed for the future

The World Economic Forum (WEF) anticipates that the main skills needed in 2020 will be:

  • cognitive flexibility
  • complex problem solving
  • coordinating with others
  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • emotional intelligence
  • judgment and decision making
  • negotiation
  • people management
  • service orientation.4

If correct, this might be advantageous to the percentage of the workforce living with disabilities. For example, studies show a strong link between autism and creativity5 and dyspraxia and empathy, a key part of emotional intelligence. Other skills, such as problem solving, are also typically developed as part of managing a disability.

Assistive technology

Technological change is also bringing exciting developments in assistive technology to support those with disabilities. This includes:

  • autism support app Brain in Hand6
  • robots for students who struggle to attend lectures7
  • virtual reality (VR) projects to help people adapt to specific situations.

A lot of assistive technology is becoming more commonplace. For example, the newest version of Word has a dictating text option, while programs like Trello, OneNote and Evernote can help with organising workloads, helping to reduce associated stress and anxiety.

Supporting disabled students

It would seem that the key to helping students thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to adapt the principles we already follow - namely, helping them understand how their strengths match labour market trends and what support is available, while equipping them with career management skills for adapting to changing labour markets.


The presentation's conclusion highlighted projects Keren and Christian had worked on in their respective universities. For example, Keren managed a project with local employers to find work experience for students with autism. Loughborough offers a Student Workplace Wellbeing webpage to support students on placement and searching for opportunities,8 as well as the student 'passport' - a document that encourages students to think about and take ownership of how their disability may affect them in the workplace and what adjustments they might need.

Both Keren and Christian are happy to be contacted to discuss these projects in more detail.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


  1. The Future of Jobs, World Economic Forum.
  2. Future of Work and Skills, OECD.
  3. GCHQ: meet the spooks with very special skills, The Times, 2015.
  4. The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, 2016.
  5. Autism and Creativity, Psychology Today, 2016.
  6. Brain in Hand: autism support app, National Autistic Society.
  7. My robot makes me feel like I haven't been forgotten, BBC, 2018.
  8. Supporting You: Student workplace wellbeing, Loughborough University.

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