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Work-based learning and students with disabilities: one step toward high-skill, high-pay careers.

Employment in a high-skill, high-pay position is a big part of the American dream. Yet, many people with disabilities fall short of realizing this dream. A survey commissioned by the National Organization on Disability concludes that only 29 percent of those with disabilities of working age are employed full- or part-time as compared with 79 percent of those who do not have disabilities. Of the people with disabilities who are not working, 72 percent report that they would prefer to have a job. In addition, two-thirds of adults with disabilities report that their disabilities have either prevented them from getting the kind of job they would like (41%) or made it more difficult (26%) (National Organization on Disability, 1998). Equity in career opportunities is an important goal, but one not easily achieved

Obstacles to employment in high-skill positions for people with disabilities include lack of encouragement from individuals with whom they interact, inadequate support systems and accommodations, and lack of access to technology that can maximize independence and productivity. Computer and Internet technologies can play a key role in helping individuals with disabilities overcome some of these obstacles. Blind students equipped with voice and Braille output systems can manipulate data and text in ways that were not possible in years past. With technologies such as alternative keyboards and voice input systems, individuals with mobility impairments that limit the use of their hands can gain full access to computing resources and tools and thereby perform high-level job functions side-by-side with their nondisabled peers. Careers that exploit technology offer great potential for individuals with disabilities. Technology can also facilitate support and encouragement to individuals with disabilities through electronic communities and information resources about alternative accommodations.

Many employers face current shortages of technical talent and predict greater shortages in the new millennium. They often report their number one challenge is finding an adequate supply of talented workers. To find qualified workers, private industry, non-profit organizations and government agencies must recruit from all sectors of society. Talented prospective workers can be found among college-bound youth with disabilities. However, these students must be encouraged to enter high-tech fields, obtain academic preparation, develop self-advocacy skills, and learn the necessary job skills to successfully perform in these positions.

Work-Based Learning Experiences

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (PL 94-142), revised in 1997 (PL 105-17), seeks to ensure that students with disabilities receive an education that facilitates the transition to further education and work. Similarly, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (PL 103-239) increases work-based and school-based learning opportunities for all students. The act creates a national framework to help states and communities create comprehensive systems to help all students apply classroom learning to high-wage, high-skill jobs or further education, and it advocates work-based learning and college preparation, explicitly mentioning students with disabilities as a target population for program inclusion. States and communities are developing programs nationwide to meet the transition needs of all students. College and university programs also offer a wide variety of work-based learning options for students enrolled in their institutions.

A work-based learning experience is any activity that gives a person an opportunity to witness or participate in typical tasks that take place in an employment setting. Described below are a few of the work-based learning activities most commonly available to high school and college students.

Job Shadowing

Visiting a worksite and observing one or more employees performing the day-to-day duties of a job in which the student is interested can provide a valuable career exploration experience. The job shadower can learn the basic functions and experience the working environment of a specific job. A job shadowing experience can vary in length from an hour or two to a full day or more, depending on the interest of the student and the flexibility of the employer.


An internship is an intense work experience of a limited time period. A student, internship coordinator, and employer collaborate to locate an appropriate work setting for the student to accomplish planned learning activities. The participant develops work-readiness skills and performs job functions under close supervision. Some programs offer academic credit for participation in internships.

Cooperative Education

Cooperative education programs extend the classroom experience to an employment setting. They are typically offered as part of a student's specific degree program. For example, a student could work as a trainee in a software development company as part of a cooperative education experience in computer science. In a cooperative education experience a participant works in a trainee position in a field of interest and gains career-related skills. Co-op experiences are typically paid positions and usually carry academic credits.

Service Learning

Students can gain job skills as they provide a community service in non-paid, volunteer service learning experiences. Participants apply knowledge and skills while contributing to the community. Sometimes academic credit can be arranged for service learning activities. Participants gain job skills as well as references that are useful in gaining full-time, paid employment. For example, a student with a disability who is seeking employment developing and maintaining Web pages could gain experience by volunteering to develop a Web page for a place of worship or a local charity group.

Benefits of Work-Based Learning

The transition from school to work is particularly difficult for people with disabilities. Attitudinal barriers and accommodation issues are compounded by the fact that college graduates with disabilities often have had few previous work experiences. Participating in work-based learning experiences has been recognized as a contributor to positive employment outcomes for all students, including those with disabilities (Doren & Benz, 1998). School-to-work program components that have been found to predict post-school success for students with and without disabilities include the emphasis on both academic and employment skills and the provision of work experiences while still in school (Benz, Yovanoft & Doren, 1997; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997).

Participation in work-related activities can help students to:

* clarify academic and career interests;

* gain academic credit

* select future courses of study;

* pay for a college education;

* develop skills in relating to supervisors and co-workers;

* test skills in a job setting;

* build a resume;

* develop a network of potential employers; and

* develop relationships with people who can be used as references when applying for positions upon graduation.

A student with a disability gains the additional benefits of being able to practice disclosing a disability, requesting accommodations and assessing the appropriateness of specific accommodation strategies.

For employers, providing work-based learning opportunities to students allows them to help prepare workers for the next generation and also test the job skills of potential future employees. When a participant has a disability, employers also gain practice in working with an individual to create a work environment that maximizes productivity and minimizes the impact of a disability.

Society benefits when individuals with disabilities, as well as other underrepresented populations, participate side-by-side with their peers in activities that were once unavailable to them. Full inclusion in work-based learning increases the supply of skilled workers available to fill high-skill positions. Positive experiences can also reduce the most significant barrier, negative attitude, faced by individuals with disabilities pursuing challenging careers such as those in science and engineering (Changing America, 1989). Full employment of people with disabilities can save billions of public dollars that are now used to support unemployed people with disabilities (Profit from Our Experience, 1995).

Examples of Work-Based Learning Programs

A high school student with a disability who wishes to take part in work-based learning experiences should consult with a school guidance or career counselor or call the district office to inquire about school-to-work options provided in the school district. Counselors or special education teachers can work with other staff, including rehabilitation counselors, the employer and the student to help assure that reasonable disability-related accommodations are provided. Efforts should be made to help the student gain self-advocacy and other skills that make people competitive when seeking employment.

A college student with a disability who wishes to participate in work-based learning should ask academic advisors and faculty about opportunities. Even if a formal program does not exist, a faculty member may be willing to supervise a work-based learning experience under a directed study arrangement with an interested student. The career services or cooperative education program offices, more often available on large campuses than small, can also be of assistance in locating opportunities. The campus disabled student services office can help determine reasonable accomadations. Work opportunities on campus should also be explored, and community service organizations are always looking for volunteers.

Several natiowide efforts to place college students with disabilities into work experiences that lead to high level positions are in place. For example, Entry Point! provides summer internships in private industry and government agencies to college students who are pursuing degrees in science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science. Participants are placed throughout the country in paid positions. Entry Point! was developed through a partnership between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), IBM, NASA, DuPont, Lockheed Martin, and UNUM Insurance Company. The AAAS also coordinates Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science (ACCESS), a program that provides paid summer internships at NASA for college-level students with diabilities who are studying engineering, mathematics, physical science, or computer science.

The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities has two programs to support work experiences:

* the Workforce Recruitment Program for college students and

* High School/High Tech for precollege students.

The Workforce Recruitment Program coordinates with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide summer and permanent employment for college students. Applicants are interviewed and rated according to the Federal Government rating scale. Rating information is entered into a database for participating employers to access. High School/High Tech is a network of community-based programs that prepare high school students for science, engineering and technology careers. High School/High Tech activities are unique to each program, but typically include job site visits, mentoring, job shadowing, guest speakers, after school activities, and summer internships. Bridges ... From School to Work, sponsored by the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities, is an example of another program that develops paid internships for students with disabilities while they are still in high school.

One Program's Experiences -- DO-IT

Disabilities, Opportunities, Internet-working, and Technology (DO-IT) is based at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle and is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and the State of Washington. DO-IT serves to increase the representation of individuals with disabilities in challenging fields where they have been traditionally underrepresented. DO-IT staff work with high school and college students to facilitate successful college and career transitions. They foster activities that increase skills in using computers, adaptive technology and the Internet; preparing for and succeeding in college; and transitioning from school to work. Staff also support Internet-based discussions with peers and mentors and coordinate work-based learning experiences for participants. DO-IT provides participants a myriad of opportunities for work-based learning, specifically:

* DO-IT provides both unpaid and paid work experiences to students with disabilities within DO-IT programs. For example, college students with disabilities can work as unpaid interns or paid staff during DO-IT's summer programs for teens with disabilities. High school and college students with disabilities can also engage in peer mentoring and participate in panels, presentations and exhibits hosted by DO-IT.

* DO-IT identifies work opportunities for students with disabilities on the university campus. For example, some students have worked in the UW Adaptive Technology Lab in paid student lab assistant positions.

* DO-IT partners with Entry Point!, High School/High Tech, ACCESS, the Workforce Recruitment Program, and college-career development offices to recruit students with disabilities into these programs.

* DO-IT develops relationships with businesses and government agencies and helps recruit and support students with disabilities within their internship programs.

In all of these activities, DO-IT staff take an active role in assuring that students, mainstream campus career development providers and employers work together to make accommodations at the worksite to maximize the success of the student. In most cases, these accommodations require less effort and fewer dollars than the employer anticipated. Dan Hodge, technical recruiting manager at AirTouch Cellular, notes: "Our costs for accommodations are usually a lot less than we anticipate they're going to be." Employers are encouraged to work with the student in determining reasonable accommodations. Together they address the questions:

1. What does the task or assignment require?

2. What physical, sensory, and cognitive skills are needed?

3. What components of the task require accommodation?

4. What accommodation options exist?

A successful work experience helps a student gain confidence, insights into career options and skills in performing job tasks and working with coworkers. The employer gains confidence in making accommodations for an individual with a disability and a higher degree of comfort in fully including people with disabilities at the worksite. A successful work-based learning experience contributes to the development of positive attitudes of supervisors and coworkers about working with individuals who have disabilities.

The work-based learning activities of DO-IT are coordinated under the DO-IT CAREERS program, which is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The name also serves as an acronym of the following reminders to participants as they prepare for the world of work.

* "C" is for Careers. Think about what interests you. Be imaginative, then narrow down the list.

* "A" is for Academics. Determine which academic programs best suit your career goals.

* "R" is for Research. Research careers that spark your interests, maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

* "EE" is for Experiential Education. Practice job search skills. Participate in internships, service learning, cooperative education programs, and other work-based learning opportunities.

* "RS" is for Relevant Skills. Use on-the-job experiences to learn practical "real world" skills. Apply what you've learned in school to the work-place. Test which accommodations work best.

Another successful practice of DO-IT is to connect young people with disabilities with mentors who have disabilities and are succeeding in challenging college studies and careers. Mentoring occurs in person and via an electronic community on the Internet.

Student Voices

Many participants in DO-IT programs for youth have benefitted from participation in work-based learning experiences. For example, in the DO-IT Scholars Program, students with disabilities prepare for the transition to postsecondary education and careers. The goal of the program is not only to help these students make successful transitions from high school to college to careers, but to facilitate their development as leaders in their communities as well. Students in the program are loaned computers and adaptive technology that allow them to access the computer independently, and they are provided with an Internet connection. They attend two summer study programs at the University of Washington (UW), where they experience college life and develop supportive peer relationships while gaining valuable computer, self-advocacy and work-related skills. For a third summer session they have an option to work as interns. Once scholars enroll in college and pursue careers they become DO-IT ambassadors, sharing their experiences with the younger scholars.

In 1993, high school student Randy, blind since birth, became a DO-IT scholar. Randy was loaned a computer with screen reading software and a voice output system and provided with an Internet connection that allowed him to complete school assignments without a human reader. He participated in electronic discussions with other DO-IT scholars and adult mentors, most of whom have disabilities themselves. After attending two summer study sessions at the UW, he worked as an intern the following summer. After high school, Randy majored in computer science at the Evergreen State College in Olympia. He continues to actively participate as a DO-IT Ambassador, mentoring younger students and participating in program activities.

During Randy's college career, he took part in several work-based learning experiences, in addition to the nonpaid internship at DO-IT's Summer Study Program. He participated in panels at several DO-IT professional development programs. DO-IT staff helped Randy secure a 6-month, puses than small, can also be of assistance in locating opportunities. The campus disabled student services office can help determine reasonable accommodations. Work opportunities on campus should also be explored, and community service organizations are always looking for volunteers.

Several nationwide efforts to place college students with disabilities into work experiences that lead to high level positions are in place. For example, Entry Point! provides summer internships in private industry and government agencies to college students who are pursuing degrees in science, engineering, mathematics and computer science. Participants are placed throughout the country in paid positions. Entry Point! was developed through a partnership between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), IBM, NASA, DuPont, Lockheed Martin, and UNUM Insurance Company. The AAAS also coordinates Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science (ACCESS), a program that provides paid summer internships at NASA for college-level students with disabilities who are studying enginee ring, mathematics, physical science, or computer science.

The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities has two programs to support work experiences:

* the Workforce Recruitment Program for college students, and

* High School/High Tech for pre-college students.

The Workforce Recruitment Program coordinates with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide summer and permanent employment paid cooperative education placement in the Information Technology department at the Weyerhaeuser Company. Randy brought adaptive technology, loaned to him by DO-IT, with him to his work experience. His knowledge about his accommodation needs and the ready availability of the technology that allowed him to be independent and productive helped to make his appointment at Weyerhaeuser successful. His work-based learning experience gave him the opportunity to try out a job at Weyerhaeuser, test his accommodations in a job setting, demonstrate his skills, and develop an important contact for his first job after graduation. In fact, Weyerhaeuser, impressed with his performance during his cooperative education experience, offered Randy a permanent, full-time position in their information technology department. Clearly, his work-based learning experience proved to be a critical step on his road to securing a high-skill position.

The following paraphrased comments from DO-IT scholars, ambassadors and mentors echo Randy's experiences, illustrate a wide variety of work-based learning options and support the value of work experiences for students with disabilities (DO-IT goes to work, 1998):

* I had a project my senior year of college where I built and maintained a Web site for my church. I'm still maintaining it even after college. It has let me gain experience through experimentation on how to build an effective Web site. It is important for any student to do this, and it is especially beneficial to people with disabilities because they sometimes need more help to overcome employers' biases.

* I had a valuable work experience when I was in high school. I worked on a project in Explorer Scouts. We formed a group that worked at a local TV station, and we actually produced six half-hour TV programs that aired on Sunday afternoons.

* Where I live, in the country by a very small town of 514 residents, there just isn't anything for me. I work on our family farm doing some of the paperwork for our finances on my computer. I guess that is a kind of work experience and should look good on a resume (besides providing me with a small sum of spending money).

* I am visually impaired and hearing impaired as well ... I am currently involved in work experience programs within my school and the community. The school district has a program called "School-to-Work" and a "School-Within-a-School" program. In the past 2 years, I have been to a doctor's office, an Internet provider and a travel agency. I have gained a lot of knowledge of business management, work ethics and other work-related skills. The program teaches resume composition, cover letter composition, business letters, some general knowledge of business law, interview practices and rules, and how to apply for a real job and use good communication skills with supervisors, staff, managers, and coworkers.

* I was an executive intern with a local meteorologist during my senior year in high school and then worked for two summers for the assistant state climatologist of Colorado. These experiences strengthened my desire to go into atmospheric science research. I also learned that connections can really help you get a job! And I practiced articulating my needs when necessary.

* During my senior year, I had an intern job at a local newspaper. I had been interested in doing some graphic work using computers for a couple of years. I had a couple of job shadows in high school that made me really consider something in this area. So this was a really good way to get my foot in the door. My internship was not a paying one, but I got high school credit for it since I did it during school hours. If you get paid, great. Now I work at Disability Support Services at my college, and having the computer and graphics background helped make me more qualified for the position.

* I've had four work-based learning experiences. I believe it is very important for students with disabilities to have work experiences before they graduate. An internship gives students a chance to problem-solve how they will transfer an accommodation used in school to a work setting in a nonthreatening environment. It is a learning experience! You learn what works for you, and you learn what does not work for you.

Staff and employers who work with DO-IT scholars and ambassadors report the value of these experiences for students with disabilities. They confirm the importance of students with disabilities becoming knowledgeable about their accommodation needs and learning appropriate ways to discuss their disabilities as they relate to specific job tasks. Work-based learning offers a low-risk, nonthreatening opportunity to learn and practice these skills.

Although work-based learning programs abound, Julie Smallman, past coordinator of DO-IT CAREERS, notes "Students with disabilities aren't accessing these services at the rate of their nondisabled peers. Many students regard them as optional program components that aren't designed for them." Further, she points out, "Inaccessible offices and materials, lack of targeted marketing and lack of knowledge about legal issues, accommodation strategies and other disability-related employment situations on the part of career counselors and program coordinators have posed barriers to the participation of students with disabilities in campus work-based learning programs."


How can we assure that more students with disabilities have access to work-based learning opportunities that will lead to employment in high-skill, high-pay positions? Creative strategies must be employed to help work-based learning program administrators, educators, parents, service providers, policy makers, funding sources, and other stakeholders work together to reach this goal.

Those who coordinate high school and college work-based learning programs are in a unique position to provide opportunities to young people with disabilities. However, few of these programs make special efforts to recruit and support students with disabilities. These programs should

* consult with special educators, disabled student services staff and students with disabilities to create programs that meet the needs of students with disabilities;

* make special efforts to recruit students with disabilities into programs;

* assure that their facilities are accessible to individuals with disabilities and that their program materials are available in alternative formats; and

* have in place policies and procedures to accommodate students with disabilities and assure that appropriate accommodations are made in their program offerings and at worksites.

Parents, educators and service providers should help students with disabilities

* develop independent living, self-advocacy and social skills that will serve them well in an employment setting;

* gain access at an early age to powerful technological tools and use these tools to maximize independence, productivity and participation in academic and work-related activities;

* maintain high academic goals and take the math, science, and other preparatory classes they need to pursue challenging careers;

* interact with successful role models, especially college students and adults with disabilities who are successful in challenging fields of study and employment; and

* become aware of programs that help individuals with disabilities become fully self-supporting members of society (e.g., the Supplemental Security Income work incentive program).

To assure that students with disabilities gain appropriate skills and work opportunities, employers should

* make special efforts to recruit individuals with disabilities into their companies and become aware of accommodations strategies and resources such as the Job Accommodation Network service of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and

* help schools and work-based learning programs understand which skills and knowledge are most critical for high performance in the work force.


Students with disabilities face unique challenges as they transition to college and the work force. By participating in work experiences, students with disabilities gain knowledge about specific careers and skills in working with supervisors and peers, performing job tasks, and securing appropriate accommodations. Educators, service providers, government agencies, policy makers, funding sources, and parents should join forces to assure that high school and college students with disabilities have full access to a broad range of work-based learning options.

This article was developed under grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs (#H324M990010) and from the National Science Foundation (#9800324). The contents do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of these funding sources.


Benz, R.B., Yavonoff, P., and Doren, B. (1997). School-to-work components that predict postschool success for students with and without disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63 (2), 151-165.

Changing America: The new face of science and engineering. (1989). Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology.

DO-IT goes to work! (1998, July) DO-IT News, 6 (5), 7-10.

Doren, B., and Benz, M.R. (1998). Employment inequity revisited: Predictors of better employment outcomes of young women with disabilities in transition. The Journal of Special Education, 31 (4), 425-442.

National Organization on Disability/ Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities (1998). [Online]. Available:

Phelps, L.A., and Hanley-Maxwell, Cheryl. (1997). School-to-work transitions for youth with disabilities: A review of outcomes and practices. Review of Educational Research, 67 (2), 197-226.

Profit From Our Experience (1995). Washington, DC: President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Dr. Burgstahler is the Director of DO-IT and Assistant Director of Information Systems, Computing and Communications, at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA.
COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:results of a survey by the National Organization on Disability
Author:Burgstahler, Sheryl
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:A reflection on the vocational rehabilitation program.
Next Article:Resources.

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