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A new graduate employability programme is providing life-changing employment opportunities to university graduates with disabilities in Northern Ireland.

GradEmployNI, delivered by Ulster University Business School (UUBS) in partnership with leading charity Leonard Cheshire, is transforming the employment prospects for graduates with disabilities by matching 25 talented individuals with paid placement opportunities in leading businesses across NI.

Employment data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency shows that just 38% of people with disabilities in NI are in positions of employment compared to the national figure of 80.3% of those who do not have disabilities.

Those with disabilities in the 16-24 age group are the worst affected by the employment and skills gap, meaning skilled graduates rarely get a fair chance of shining in the workplace.

GradEmployNI launched in January 2022 and aims to help disabled graduates reach their career ambitions and maximise their employment potential through access to new learning opportunities and experiences, as well as helping local organisations access a diverse pool of high-calibre candidates.

The 14-week placement scheme offers participants a pathway to tailored learning, practical employment training, coaching, and a supported industrial work placement with a local organisation. 25 participants have completed the programme since its launch.

For many, the pioneering scheme has had a transformative impact on graduate capabilities and employability, with a number of participants reporting the programme had improved their overall confidence and helped create a sense of purpose in their careers.

One of those participants was Sarah Fox. After graduating with a 2:1 in Anthropology and English (BA) and managing a lifelong chronic illness, Sarah faced a considerable challenge of finding employment in her chosen career field.

Sarah, now a project support worker at Bolster Community, discussed how the GradEmployNI initiative provided the impetus to pursue her dream career in teaching;

“Before I joined GradEmployNI, I was feeling lost and a little overwhelmed. I graduated but had no idea what to do next. I attempted working in a coffee shop for two months after I graduated because I needed real-life experience, but my Crohn’s and arthritis would flare up and fatigue would make the easiest tasks appear insurmountable.

“The best way I can describe this programme’s impact is that it has changed my narrative. It has given me back power where I have previously lost it. The idea of a full-time job with 9 to 5 hours previously unnerved me, but in practice there has been a major improvement and the routine has really helped with my overall health.

“Having this placement has allowed me the opportunity to grow and focus more on cultivating the life I dream of and bring back purpose into my life. I love connecting with others and working in a team and the experience gained has given me the confidence and tools to pursue my dream career in teaching.”

Sarah’s transition from education to employment has been so successful that her employer, Bolster Community, has extended her placement for a further 12 months.

Throughout the course of the programme, graduates attend a week-long intensive bootcamp and a series of workshops on business and management skills aimed at equipping learners with the necessary employability skills to manage the recruitment process and help build confidence to overcome barriers that people with disabilities often face when searching and applying for job opportunities.

Topics covered includes human resource management, future of work, accounting and finance, leadership, working in teams, technology at work, innovation and entrepreneurship, with each learner receiving one-to-one mentoring and coaching support by an academic from UUBS. Over 25 academic staff within UUBS offer their knowledge and expertise to the programme.

Dr Paul Joseph-Richard, Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Ulster University and GradEmployNI Programme Leader, commented:

“Within Ulster University Business School, we are committed to unlocking talent and fulfilling potential for everyone, and are delighted to partner with Leonard Cheshire and employer organisations to deliver new learning opportunities that help our graduates succeed in the world of work. Interventions like GradEmployNI enable business, government, education, and non-profit sectors to come together to create impactful outcomes that positively transform employment opportunities for disabled graduates who often encounter barriers in finding employment. We are incredibly proud to see the added value that our learners and employers are gaining through this initiative.

“As of August 2022, seven of our participants have secured full-time jobs and  have been linked with Disability Action NI charity for additional support. This ongoing support will help them manage their health condition so that they can stay in employment. 14 of the 25 participants have been offered extensions with their placement host, six of which have been offered are placements for 12+ months and it is likely that for others their placements will be extended further. We are currently working with leading employers to help secure jobs for the remaining participants. Through innovative mindset development programmes, employer training and meaningful networks, we hope to reduce the disability employment gap in Northern Ireland.”

Around 20 local partnerships have been established across the region as part of the scheme, with organisations and businesses facilitating work placements from all business sectors including:

  • Expleo Group
  • Kainos
  • Mid Ulster Council
  • Northern Ireland Policing Board
  • Belfast Healthy Cities
  • Women in Business
  • Women’s Tech
  • Digital Twenty Four
  • Excalibur Press.

Sinead McAleer, Corporate Learning and Development Manager at Mid Ulster District Council, one of the employers on the scheme, said:

“As an equal opportunities’ employer, the Council was delighted to be involved in this programme and welcomed the opportunity to facilitate a placement within our planning department to enhance learning and development and improve employability.

“It is important that companies support these programmes by providing opportunities to participants to gain practical work experience in real work situations which can only enhance their learning experience and thus increase confidence for applying for jobs.”

For more information or if you are interested in creating more inclusive organisations, contact Dr Paul Joseph-Richard at