NEW YORK (Reuters) - With unemployment stubbornly stuck around 9 percent, Molly Kirk knows she's lucky she to have a job offer in the human resources training program at Google after graduation. Even with her excellent credentials, the Georgetown senior is quick to thank Lime Connect, an organization that partners with the world's leading corporations to offer summer internships to high-potential students with disabilities.
"Lime Connect helped me come to terms with my disability, gain confidence and make powerful connections so that I can achieve outside the classroom," says Kirk, who is severely hearing-impaired and wears hearing aides.
Believed to be the first organization of its kind, Lime Connect (think fresh approach to disability), was launched in 2006 to attract, prepare and connect students with often hidden disabilities such as ADHD, Asperger's Syndrome and dyslexia from top schools like Princeton, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and Duke. The program helps students get internships and, ultimately, careers at top-tier corporations.
Students in their sophomore year apply online for 20 Lime Connect Fellowship slots. (The application process is open December to February at www.limeconnect.com for the 2012 class.) "It is an extremely competitive process," says Susan Lang, president and CEO of Lime Connect. Of the 125 who applied in 2010 and 2011, 40 were chosen as finalists and came to New York City for two days of interviews with corporate partners for summer internship positions.
In addition to networking experience, fellows get support on disclosing a disability and asking for accommodations. But perhaps the most rewarding part of the program is "the connections with other students with disabilities," Kirk says.
Lime Connect partners currently include Google, Target, PepsiCo, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Other companies that have employed Lime Fellows include Apple, Cisco, McKinsey & Company and Barclays. "There are no special internships or positions put aside for our candidates," Lang says. "They compete with everyone else. All they're getting is the connection," she says. After the internship, many of them have landed jobs, like Kirk.
The student is not the only one who benefits since companies get access to talent they might otherwise have overlooked. Consider the facts: 54 million adults, or 20 percent of the nation's population, has a mental or physical disability. The employment rate for people with disabilities in the U.S. was 39.5 percent in 2008, roughly half of that for people without disabilities.
What about the student population? An estimated 2.5 million U.S. undergrad and graduate students reported disabilities in 2008 -- or one in 10 students on university campuses nationwide. That is 130 percent more than the 1.1. million reported in 1996, according to data compiled by Lime Connect from government sources.
"Ninety percent of all disabilities on campus are invisible -- including learning disabilities, ADD, ADHD, medical conditions and more," Lang says. When a disability is invisible, the fear of disclosure can be great and these students are too intimated to go through the regular corporate recruitment process. "Only about 30 percent actually go through the event, and the remaining 70 percent are underemployed, go home to the family business or stay in academia because they are perceived as safe places," says Lang. What's more, many of these students have historically shied away from other disability organizations.
Last summer, six of the 20 Lime fellows worked at Google. Hiring these students "isn't only the right thing, it is the smart thing," says Greg Marsh, a university programs manager at Google who recruits on college campuses. That's because Google wants a diverse employee population to reflect its user base.
Companies need to reach their diversity hiring goals and Lime Connect helps. "Lime Connect is the best way to break the stereotype in the workplace," says Tom Wilson, a former head of global talent sourcing and recruiting at Merrill Lynch and a Lime Connect board chairman. "When these companies get exposed to our exceptionally talented men and women who have already climbed a mountain and overcome something in their short lives to be successful, they want them on their team," he says.
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.