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Creating mentoring opportunities for youth with disabilities: issues and suggested strategies.

Mentoring can have a dramatic impact on a young person's life. Despite the increasing prevalence and importance of mentoring programs for youth in general, few of these programs, to date, intentionally include youth with disabilities.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of mentoring in helping youth develop skills, knowledge and motivation to successfully transition from high school to adult life (Moccia, Schumaker, Hazel, Vernon & Deshler, 1989; Rhodes, Grossman & Resch, 2000). This transition is a major goal of youth with disabilities--one supported both by school systems and by federal policy. Research on mentoring programs, however, reflects a lack of focus on specific applications of these programs for youth with disabilities. A review of 15 years of research on mentoring within organizations across the United States identifies demographics and risk factors for youth, but does not directly address disability as one of those factors (Sipe, 1999). A random national survey of 1,504 adult mentors identified several variables, such as academic performance, race and socioeconomic factors; however, it does not directly address issues of disability (McLearn, Colasanto, Schoen & Shapiro, 1999).

Youth with disabilities may be participating in mentoring programs, but program managers and mentors may be unaware of how disabilities affect mentoring relationships. The reason for this lack of attention to disability issues is unclear.


Mentoring can take many different forms. It can occur one-on-one and in small groups, with various combinations of mentor/mentee matches. Mentoring can take place through personal meetings, e-mail exchanges, telephone conversations, letters, or any other form of correspondence. Perhaps the most commonly recognized model is a face-to-face, one-on-one community-based model, such as that associated with Big Brothers/ Big Sisters. However, mentoring can also be done in groups, through schools, or through businesses or community agencies.

In community-based mentoring, volunteers from the community are matched with youth, with a general focus on building relationships and enhancing students' social activities. The majority of activities take place outside of school and work environments.

In school-based mentoring, adults are matched with children through their school classroom, and the bulk of activities take place during school hours, often with an academic or career-related focus (Sipe, 1999). In some other cases, employers run mentoring programs. For example, a group of employee-mentors may be matched with students in a specific classroom or school. It is also possible to have group mentoring, in which one mentor is matched with a small group of mentees.

A new model that is increasing in popularity is electronic mentoring (also called e-mentoring or telementoring). In this form of mentoring, the mentor and protege, or mentee, communicate via e-mail. E-mentoring is generally school-based and frequently focuses on career or academic achievement and improvement. Connecting to Success (1), developed at the University of Minnesota, is an example of an e-mentoring model for youth with disabilities.


In order to be truly effective, a mentoring program should benefit all participants--proteges, mentors, parents, community members and others. Additionally, it is crucial that the mentoring program be well run, with training and support available for all participants. Research has documented that some of the most common positive effects for mentors include:

* increased self-esteem;

* feelings of accomplishment and creation of networks of volunteers;

* insight into childhood and adolescence; and

* personal gain, such as increased patience, a sense of effectiveness and acquiring new skills or knowledge (Rhodes et al., 2000).

Employers who engage in mentoring programs also experience benefits. Mentoring influences the organizational culture, sending a message that the company cares about people, values employees and accepts diversity among both youth mentees and employees. Where youth with disabilities are mentored, the mentors and employers learn about the students' capabilities in spite of any disabilities they may have. This, in turn, prepares youth to be part of the future work force, and gives employers a potential solution for labor market issues (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2000). Additionally, employers benefit from a more motivated work force and employees report greater satisfaction in their work (The Connecticut Mentoring Project, 2002).

For proteges, some of the most commonly reported benefits of mentoring include:

* better attitudes toward school and the future;

* decreased likelihood of initiating drug or alcohol use;

* greater feelings of academic competence;

* improved academic performance; and

* more positive relationships with friends and family (Campbell-Whatley, 2001).


In addition to the earlier referenced studies, other research from recognized mentoring organizations confirms these benefits. This research reveals that mentoring can:

* change the course of a young person's life, decrease substance abuse and improve academic performance (Beier, Rosenfeld, Spitalny, Zansky & Bontempo, 2000);

* impact many of the goals that are part of the transition process: succeeding academically, understanding the adult world, developing career awareness, accepting support while taking responsibility, communicating effectively, overcoming barriers and developing social skills (Rhodes et al., 2000); and

* provide connections for youth within the world of work, opening possibilities for employment, thus serving as a dynamic catalyst for the achievement of transition goals.


Because youth with disabilities are more likely to be in certain "at risk" categories, they especially stand to benefit from mentoring. In some cases, mentors, youth and program managers may need guidance on how to facilitate the inclusion of youth with disabilities. Some of the potential issues include:

* Does the young person need accommodations in order to participate?

* Is the mentor prepared to foster development in a young person who may have significant academic limitations or barriers, social problems, boundary issues or medical complexities?

* What disability-related information does the mentor need?

* How should mentoring programs handle the issue of whether or not to disclose the disability?

* How can mentors acknowledge the needs of youth with disabilities while encouraging excellence and help them develop an orientation toward success?

These issues can be addressed through some simple practices and an inclusive attitude toward all youth.


Establishing some basic provisions for inclusion of youth with disabilities in mentoring programs is a first step in making programs more accessible and establishing mentoring opportunities for youth with disabilities. These provisions also add to the overall quality of mentoring experiences for all participants.

Some of these provisions include:

* Mentoring Web sites should be accessible to youth with various disabilities (for more about how to make your Web site accessible, please visit the World Wide Web Consortiums' Web Accessibility Initiative, at

* Promotional materials should clearly state that youth with disabilities are welcome to participate. A statement inviting participation of youth from diverse backgrounds, including youth with disabilities, can clarify for them that they are truly welcome.

* In designing training for mentoring programs, individuals who run mentoring programs should consider issues such as boundaries, disclosure of disability-related information, mandatory reporting of abuse or neglect, responsibilities for each role within the program, and expectations of mentors and mentees.

An effective mentoring program will seek mentors with an understanding of the determination and perseverance needed to overcome barriers. Also, mentors should accept youth at their current level of development while holding high expectations for future achievement (Campbell-Whatley, 2001).

Following are some key concepts for creating mentoring programs that include youth with disabilities:

* Disabilities vary widely among youth, and what works for one young person may not work for another. For example, a student with a hearing impairment will have needs distinctly different from a student with a developmental disability. Establish a clear structure, be careful about handling the disclosure of disability-related information and systematically use accommodations.

* A major goal of transition is for youth to understand and be able to discuss their disabilities. Mentors and mentoring program managers can support youth in this task by being open to discussion of disabilities in the mentoring relationship.

* Mentors need support and training. Program staff can support mentors by periodically communicating with them about the progress or challenges in the mentoring process. Periodic meetings that encourage discussion among mentors and program staff may provide some of the support mentors need. Follow-up training or refresher training may also benefit mentors as they become more deeply immersed in the mentoring process.

* Assure that the mentoring program is set up to support and facilitate regular, ongoing communication between mentors and proteges. This is particularly important for youth with disabilities. If a lapse of time occurs between contacts, participants can become frustrated and withdraw from the mentoring relationship, even if the lapse was due to a misunderstanding or miscommunication. Regular contact is important for youth who may have experienced a series of failed relationships or inconsistent adult guidance, as is the case for many youth with disabilities.

* Build into the mentoring program an adequate means of screening mentors, or other safeguards. Some programs require complete background checks on all mentors. Other programs have safeguards built into the structure of activities (e.g., all activities occur at the school, all activities occur online, all activities are monitored, etc.).

* To address confidentiality and legal concerns, require parents to sign a consent form giving permission for the youth to participate in the program (Campbell-Whatley, 2001). (2)


(1.) Guidelines for establishing mentoring programs are offered in Campbell-Whatley's "Mentoring Students with Mild Disabilities: The Nuts and Bolts of Program Development," Intervention in School and Clinic (2001); Sipe's "Mentoring Adolescents: What Have We Learned?" Contemporary Issues in Mentoring (1999); and Saito and Roehlkepartain's "Variety of Programs Meet Needs of Mentors and Mentees," Source Newsletter (1992).

(2.) Connecting to Success is an electronic mentoring program of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition at the University of Minnesota. The Connecting to Success framework includes training for mentors on working with youth with disabilities. Students are matched with mentors in a local business (or businesses) and communicate via e-mail for the course of the academic year. While the program is designed to address the specific needs of youth with disabilities, it can also be a valuable resource on the inclusion of youth with disabilities, their potential needs and information for mentors on disability related issues. Connecting to Success staff members are available to assist staff from other mentoring programs who want to better serve youth with disabilities within their programs. For more information on Connecting to Success, visit the program's Web site at:


Beier, S.R., Rosenfeld, W.D., Spitalny, K.C., Zansky, S.M., & Bontempo A.N. (2000). The potential role of an adult mentor in influencing high-risk behaviors in adolescents. Archive of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 154, 327-331.

Campbell-Whatley, G. (2001). Mentoring students with mild disabilities: The "nuts and bolts" of program development. Intervention in School and Clinic, 36 211-216.

Connecticut Mentoring Project (2002). Why Mentoring. Retrieved July 16, 2002, from cmp_whyment.html.

McLearn, K.T., Colasanto, D., Schoen, C., & Shapiro M.Y. (1999). Mentoring matters: A national survey of adults mentoring young people. In J.B. Grossman (Ed.), Contemporary issues in mentoring. Retrieved April 8, 2002, from reports/issuesinmentoring_pdf.html.

Moccia, R.E., Schumaker, J.B., Hazel, J.S., Vernon, D.S., & Deshler, D. (1989). A mentor program for facilitating the life transitions of individuals who have handicapping conditions. Reading, Writing, and Learning Disabilities, 5, 177-195.

Rhodes, J.E., Grossman, J.B., & Resch, N.L. (2000). Agents of change: Pathways through which mentoring relationships influence adolescents' academic adjustment. Child Development, 71, 1662-1671.

Saito, R.N., & Roehlkepartain, E.C. (1992). Variety of programs meets needs of mentors and mentees. Source Newsletter. Retrieved February 2, 2002, from http:// tdm.htm.

Sipe, C. (1999). Mentoring adolescent: What have we learned? In J.B. Grossman (Ed.), Contemporary Issues in Mentoring. Retrieved April 8, 2002, from http:// issuesinmentoring_pdf.html.

Thurlow, M. (2002, January). Issue Brief: Accommodations for students with disabilities in high school. Retrieved April 10, 2002, from htlp:// publications/viewdesc.asp?id = 247.


Connecting to Success

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

Institute on Community Integration

University of Minnesota 6 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive, S.E.

Minneapolis, MN 55455 Telephone: (612) 624-2097

Ms. Sword and Ms. Hill are program coordinators at the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET), Minneapolis, Minn.
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Author:Hill, Katharine
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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