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Mentors, advisers role models, & peer supporters: career development relationships and individuals with disabilities.

Research indicates mentoring can help youths develop skills, knowledge and motivation as they transition from high school to postsecondary education and employment. Mentoring helps Students with disabilities to shape their future goals and aspirations leading to meaningful change in academic, career and personal life. Mentors help students make sound decisions and choices that promote academic and career development. Advisers assist [heir individuals with making sound decisions and choices while promoting intellectual development. Like mentors, role models shape the direction youths take when determining their future, yet the commitment of time compared to the traditional mentor role is minimal. Additionally, peer relationships are important for individuals with disabilities in educational and employment settings. The purpose of this article is to define and describe these four relationships, to provide examples of each, followed by a discussion and recommendations that promote personal, academic and career development.


Relationships in employment settings are complex and have potential to hinder or harm options for assistance at work. Positive relationships with mentors and role models have been shown to enhance career development and social and emotional aspects in an individual's life (Hagner, 2000; Kram, 1985; Kram & Isabella, 1985). Defining and understanding the nature of mentors, advisers, role models and peer relationships as they develop at work is the first step in determining how these roles impact individuals with disabilities


Mentoring relationships, originally described in Greek mythology, occur when an older adult helps a younger individual learn about the world and work. Mentors guide, support and counsel youths as they navigate their way in the adult world (Kram, 1985). Mentors are like older, wiser, friends, who are available at informal times to talk, and exchange advice and counsel (Skouge et. al., 2000). Mentoring is associated with a variety of activities, including role modeling; job shadowing; providing personal, academic and career advice and networking (Beck, 1989: Kram & Isabella, 1985; Saito & Blyth, 1992; Templin & Doran, 1999). Mentors assist by functioning in the role of sponsor, coach and facilitator while offering challenging work or protection. The mentor relationship requires a high level of involvement, commitment and time leading to linkages at a deeply personal and professional level, and it extends well beyond the initial interaction. Long-term mentoring relationships have been known to be highly effective in assisting individuals with disabilities to excel in education and employment, as the mentor is personally vested by providing a nurturing and stimulating relationship conducive to personal and professional growth. A successful mentoring relationship can provide career-enhancing activities within an employment setting while establishing an appropriate role for the individual within the organization (Kram, 1985; Kram & Isabella, 1985). A high degree of trust and involvement is established between the mentor and protege (Mertz, 2001).

Both the mentor and the protege, or individual being mentored, benefit from this career-enhancing association. The mentor has the opportunity to develop a sense of competence and self-worth in the managerial role, as well as to develop skills that may profit his or her advancement in the organization. Along with the opportunity to receive recognition and respect from peers for making a contribution to the development of a young talent, internal satisfaction is a potential by-product for the mentor. In a mentoring relationship, proteges and mentors both win, resulting in long-term benefits for society at large (Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001; Kram, 1985; Kram & Isabella, 1985; Saito & Blyth, 1992).

"Mentoring" is widely used, but there is little agreement and some confusion about what it means (Hurley, 1988). Operational definitions of the term abound and mix instrumental and emotional aspects that result in different meanings to different scholars (Crosby, 1999). There is also no universal agreement on a definition of "mentor," adding to the confusion (Mertz, 2001). Mentors and those who they assist hold different, often conflicting perceptions of the relationships in which they are involved (Pfleeger & Mertz, 1995). Hurley (1988) indicates that "mentor" has become a catchall term.

Yet, the term "mentoring" thrives in business, education, social service and minority and women's studies. Without an operational definition of mentoring, concepts embedded in practice are inadvertently included in various descriptions and definitions. Mertz (2001) found that there is confusion and contradiction when comparing the "roles identified with mentoring and the definitions assigned to those roles." Coaching has been confused with counseling, and both confused with mentoring (Mertz, 2001, p2). Crosby's work on career enhancement functions (1999) has helped to make a distinction between role models, sponsors and mentors. Additionally, it appears that these terms used to describe relationships meet a variety of developmental and social needs (Kram, 1985: Kram & Isabella, 1985). These relationships, including role models, advisers and peer supporters, can be organized by using the concepts of intent, involvement and developmental function to determine their usefulness (Kram & Isabella, 1985; Mertz, 2001).

Advisers assist their individuals with making sound decisions and choices while promoting intellectual development. The advising relationship requires personal involvement, time commitment and the opportunity to share information that focuses upon career or educational advancement. An adviser may be a mentor, but it is not necessary for the adviser relationship to evolve in this way. Traditionally, what distinguishes an adviser from a mentor is that the mentor focuses on personal and career advancement for a longer time and at a higher and more committed level than the adviser. However, the level of trust in the adviser must nevertheless be such that the adviser not only knows what to suggest but also that the person with whom they are working will accept their guidance.

One example of an adviser role is that of adviser in a graduate school. Advisers use their knowledge of the program, the institution and their field to help students make sound educational choices and to grow intellectually and professionally. The student is charged with developing a credible dissertation with the guidance of an adviser. The adviser has the responsibility to see that the dissertation meets the appropriate standards. The process of writing the dissertation contributes to the development of a give-and-take relationship.

Role Models can be critical to the academic and career development of young people. The role model serves as an object of admiration, emulation and respect. An individual's identification and connection with a role model, even when it is short-term, can have long lasting impact. Role models have distinctly different levels of involvement as compared to mentors and advisers. There is a continuum of support offered by the role model ranging from those having no intent of being a role model with minimal interaction to those who are fully aware and commit time to being a role model. For example, some popular celebrities may be vaguely aware of being a role model, but commit no time or energy to the relationship, while a teacher may be clearly aware that they are a role model setting positive examples for their students and committing time and energy to build the relationship. Some mentors and advisers are role models if perceived that way by the individual, yet no specific actions are required. Unlike being an adviser or mentor, the time commitment and emotional cost of being a role model can be minimal to nonexistent, if one is a distant figure. However, there can be an emotional benefit when one is identified as a role model. The role model relationship develops in a process where the person identifies, observes and questions the role model, resulting ill identification, emulation and acceptance of some of the elements of the role model's style while rejecting other elements (Kram, 1985; Mertz, 2001).

The role model serves a social function. The role model relationship provides affirmation and the opportunity to learn something that is specific to the role model's knowledge. The role model does not require a time commitment or personal and emotional involvement, yet significant influence is possible. This limited time high impact aspect may be especially useful for those working with students at risk of failure, adults with no clear occupational interest and individuals with disabilities. The role model is a realistic intervention for many, considering the shortage of time and emotional commitment available from professional staff and volunteers.

Role modeling succeeds because of the emotional attachment that is formed. An example of this for youths with disabilities is when these youths are able to observe people with similar disabilities as they successfully pursue education and careers that might otherwise have been thought of as impossible. In these instances, the role model is expanding the perceived range of career considered possible by young people with disabilities.

Peer Supporters can serve some of the same critical functions as mentors. Most organizations are hierarchical in nature with multiple levels of peers, superiors and subordinates. Given that status is not an issue with peer supporters, there is an increased likelihood that communication, mutual support and collaboration will naturally occur. Mentors and advisers in hierarchical relationships must contend with the disparity in status and power. Peer relationships are viable options when power and status interfere with the opportunity to form supportive mentor and adviser relationships. It therefore follows that peer supporters exist naturally in organizational cultures that encourage frequent and open communication across hierarchical levels (Kram, 1985; Kram & Isabella, 1985).

Peer-supported relationships are mutually enhancing, as there is an equal level of power and exchange of information, advice and support. This support may be instrumental or emotional. Instrumental support has been described as organizational (how to file for a day of off), physical (help moving supplies to the work area) or involving training (how to complete an assigned task). Peers can also provide emotional support (assistance someone needs, for example, to calm down when upset) (Hagner, 2000; Kram & Isabella, 1985).

Peer supporters exhibit many similar attributes as mentors. They have the potential to support career development by offering a high level of commitment and involvement. Peers often provide critical functions: They can coach, counsel and provide information and support. But peer supporters are different from mentors in critical ways. Mentors are usually older than those they support and work at a higher level in the structure. Their involvement is primarily a one-way relationship, while peer relationships involve people of similar age, level of power and experience, resulting in opportunities to create symbiotic two-way relationships.

Career Development Relationships. Mentoring is an effective intervention for students with disabilities in that the relationship provides opportunities for shaping the aspirations and goals that lead to changes in the course of a youth's academic, career and personal life. Advisers assist with making sound decisions and choices while promoting intellectual and career development. Like mentors, role models shape the direction youths take when determining their future, yet the commitment of time compared to the traditional mentor role is minimal. Finally, peer relationships have been identified as socially and emotionally important relationships for individuals with disabilities in typical educational and employment.


The National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports (NCSPES), Rehabilitation Research & Training Center (RRTC), Center on Disability Studies (CDS), at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is associated with two projects that have done research and contributed to the field of postsecondary education and transition to quality adult life. The Oceans of Potentiality (OP) Program's projects are located in Hawaii and offer a range of services focused on teaching science, engineering, mathematics and technology to students with disabilities in an inclusive setting. The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) programs use electronic communication among mentors and peers in combination with residential scholars at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Both of these programs encourage students with disabilities and their families to consider occupations in science, engineering and math while using advisers, mentors, role models and peer supporters to accomplish this end (Cunningham & Nobel, 1998). Persons with disabilities are under represented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology, frequently to the detriment of the vitality of the United States' participation in scientific and technical enterprises. This situation is exacerbated by low career expectations for persons with disabilities among students, parents, teachers and administrators (Cunningham & Nobel, 1998; Jones, 1997). One of the most significant challenges faced by professionals working with students and adults with disabilities is to increase their exposure to challenging career options within the constraints of limited resources available to public service providers.

The Oceans of Potentiality Program, in cooperation with scientific, multiple nonprofit and state education organizations, provides a Hawaii-wide experiential and accessible, guidance instruction network to help individuals with disabilities to attain interest, education and careers in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. Project strategies serve to change attitudes and educational opportunities of students, educators and families as well as at the state policy level. Role models and mentors, many with disabilities themselves, interact with students to advance access and inclusion of all students in these fields. Assistive technology is utilized in concert with the computers and the Internet to ensure that students are fully included and empowered in project activities. Electronic technology is used to encourage networking and information dissemination among student teams, educational organizations, administrators and members of the community.

At present, the Ocean of Potentiality Program is made up of four projects: OP Cyber Clubs, OP Science Camps, the Dolphin Interaction Program, and Videography. Cyber Clubs are used to spread ideas and maintain student contact. Students who participate can interact through the cyber clubs and create their own Web sites and projects. Science Camps provide students with disabilities experiences of science first hand. These Camps are centered on an experiential science curriculum and design but also introduce career education and disability awareness. The Dolphin Interaction teaches science through observations and interactions with dolphins. Participants enjoy in the water hands on learning with the dolphins at Sea Life Park Hawaii. The program facilitates growth in education and communication.

The Ocean of Potentiality Program provides experience and career education in the field of television and film through its participant-led television show, "Through the Viewfinder," in which students produce and film documentaries about OP projects which are broadcast via the public access station, "Olelo."

The Ocean of Potentiality Program provides tangible support for youths with disabilities in Hawaii as they envision and prepare for science, engineering and mathematics careers. Through this interactive program the participants also have a chance to identify and overcome barriers.

This program also introduces participants, including students with disabilities and their parents, to a scientist and potential role model with a significant disability who has achieved success in his chosen field. It is an example of a program that has successfully utilized and identified role models to effect change in perceptions and expand career opportunities that were previously viewed as out of reach. Short-term exposure to a successful role model has uncovered career opportunities often not considered as options by the students or their parents.

In DO-IT, mentor-protege relationships, peer supporters, advisers and role models are key. Most mentors are college students, faculty, practicing engineers, scientists or other professionals who have disabilities. Proteges are participants in the DO-IT Scholars, Pals, or Campers programs (DO-IT, 2003). These teens, all of whom have disabilities, are making plans for postsecondary education and employment. Their disabilities include visual, hearing, mobility and health impairments and specific learning disabilities. Frequent electronic communications and personal contacts bring DO-IT participants together with peers, mentors, role models and advisers to promote academic, career and personal achievements.

Introducing proteges to mentors with similar disabilities is the strength of the DO-IT program. As one protege reported, she had never met an adult with a hearing impairment like hers before getting involved in DO-IT: "But when I met him I was so surprised how he had such a normal life, and he had a family and he worked with people who had normal hearing. So he made me feel a lot better about my future" (Opening Doors, 1998).

Participants learn strategies for success in academics and employment. Mentors provide direction and motivation, instill values, promote professionalism and help proteges develop leadership skills. As one scholar noted: "It feels so nice to know that there are adults with disabilities, or who know a lot about disabilities, because I think that people who are about to go to college or start their adult life can learn a lot from mentors ..." As participants move from high school to college and careers, they too become mentors, sharing their experiences with younger participants.

Most mentoring and peer support (Burgstahler, 1997; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001) in DO-IT takes place via the Internet. Through electronic communications and projects using the Internet, mentors promote personal, academic and career success. Electronic communication eliminates challenges imposed by time, distance and disability that are characteristic of in-person mentoring. For example, participants who have some mobility impairment or are deaf do not need special assistance to communicate via electronic mail. Those who cannot use the standard keyboard because of mobility impairments, use assistive technology to operate their computer systems.

There are probably as many mentoring styles as there are personality types, and no one can be everything to one person. Each DO-IT participant benefits from contact with several mentors. While DO-IT encourages one-to-one communication between proteges and mentors via electronic mail, it also facilitates communication in small groups through the use of electronic discussion lists. For example, one group includes both mentors and proteges who are blind. They discuss common interests and concerns, such as independent living, speech and Braille output systems for computers and options for displaying images and mathematical expressions. Research findings suggest that computer-mediated communication can be used to initiate and sustain both peer-peer and mentor-protege relationships, alleviate barriers to traditional relationships and alleviate barriers to traditional communications due to time and schedule limitations, physical distances and disabilities of participants.

While most communication occurs via electronic mail, some mentors meet their proteges during summer study programs at the University of Washington and at other DO-IT activities across the United States. In-person contact strengthens relationships formed on line. It is often reported that peer and mentor support can help students with disabilities reach their social, academic and career potential. However, constraints imposed by time, distance and disability make such relationships difficult to initiate and sustain. The DO-IT programs suggest that practitioners, parents and students should consider using the Internet as a vehicle for developing and supporting positive peer and mentor relationships.

DO-IT also arranges presentations by high achieving people with disabilities in its summer programs. Participants gain insights into academic and career opportunities from these role models. And, throughout the year, DO-IT advisers deliver information and suggestions regarding academic and career opportunities and preparation for college and employment during summer programs and on the Internet year-round.


When exposed to occupations that appear inaccessible, students with disabilities continue to exhibit low aspirations and limited views of career options (Stevens, Steele, Jutai, Kalnins, Bortolussi & Biggar, 1996). Youths with disabilities rarely are exposed to the range of career development and relationships with those who exhibit significant disabilities, yet this type of exposure has the potential of being personally relevant while expanding occupational options. Increasing options and aspirations held by students with disabilities through relationships with others in the roles of mentor, adviser, role model or peer supporter can have a significant impact on self-esteem, career options and potential for lifelong growth.

Most vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors act as advisers to their clients and are not able to make the time commitment to one student to be a mentor. Yet, mentors can provide the most potent career development relationships and should be fostered as much as possible. Both the Oceans of Potentiality Program and DO-IT are successful examples of how mentors raise the aspirations for students.

With limited resources available to those working in positions at schools and VR organizations, considering the use of the role model as a short-term intervention agent is an option that can be readily utilized to help professionals assist youths with disabilities. VR counselors can be facilitators in identifying role models for students with disabilities. All students in high school, for example, could be exposed to a role model with a significant disability who overcame barriers to be successful in a desirable and prestigious field. This short-term exposure has the potential to make an impact upon any student, yet the personal relevance for those with disabilities can potentially increase occupational awareness while breaking down artificial, self-imposed barriers.

The strength of the role model as a short-term intervention with long-term effect should be appealing to those working with youths in schools and adults in the VR domain. Scarce resources, including both time and funding, limit or eliminate the option of long-term mentoring when establishing supports within education and vocation domains; thus, exposure to successful role models may be a cost effective and productive alternative worthy of consideration.

Certainly mentoring is a complex concept that cannot be readily dissected into subsets. Mertz's (2001) proposed framework helps define and organize mentoring, advising and role modeling, thus providing a shared language that all in the helping professions can use. Collins' (1993) contribution is also helpful as he describes supervisory-student mentorship as a close interpersonal helping partnership that strengthens over time. Van Gyn and Ricks (1997), further contribute by describing mentoring as a set of activities that lead to the development of a supportive relationship. Mentoring is a range and array of all of these relational activities that encompass career development. Although terms are in flux, contributions from theorists like Mertz, Collins, VanGyn and Ricks provide the framework to establish a common set of terms for understanding how best to serve those desiring support in the workplace and in education.

In summary, below are some suggestions for VR practitioners wishing to initiate an effective system of using mentors, advisers, role models and/or peer supporters to enhance the rehabilitation process.

* Fund support services that are integrated into typical employment settings where mentors and other developmental relationships can occur.

* Counsel VR clients on the value of mentors, advisers, role models and peer supporters. Help VR clients develop these relationships.

* With VR client permission, meet with career development relations to acknowledge and support the relationships.

* Locate and train adults with disabilities to be mentors and role models.

* Provide both in-person and online opportunities for mentoring, advising and peer support.


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Dr. Whelley is assistant professor, Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawaii, Manoa; Dr. Radtke is president and CEO, Sea of Dreams Foundation, Waianae, Hawaii; Dr. Burgstahler is director of DO-IT, University of Washington, Seattle; and Mr. Christ is school psychologist and research assistant, Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawaii, Manoa.
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Author:Christ, Thomas W.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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