Accelify Blog

How vocational training in secondary school can ease transition for students with disabilities

May 18, 2016

5 innovative programs that make vocational training accessible to students with disabilities while still in school

Last week we discussed poor postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. We explored how increased opportunities for vocational training and support while students are still in school can help to ease the notoriously rocky transition from high school to adulthood.  We also took a look at recent legislation that prioritizes funding for individuals with disabilities so they can more easily access vocational rehabilitation resources traditionally reserved for adults while still in secondary school. You can read the full post here.

This week we take a look at several innovative programs that seek to prepare students with disabilities for life beyond school and improve postsecondary outcomes, some using VR dollars and others using other public money or private funds.

is an innovative school in the Los Angeles area specifically designed to cultivate and foster an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) for students with special needs. Not only does the school take an innovative approach to educating students with special needs in STEM subjects using student-centered, project-based learning methodologies, but the school considers future employment for their students as one of its chief missions.  With 80-90% of students with disabilities currently unemployed or underemployed, the school sets out to change this by helping students discover pathways to meaningful work. Students are presented with unique learning opportunities which help them develop the kinds of skills they will need to acquire and maintain jobs in the tech industry.

In addition to equipping students with 21st century skills they can use in the workplace, students who attend Stem3 also have opportunities for professional internships and mentorships while still in high school through partnerships with local community businesses, organizations, and laboratories.

is a non-profit educational organization located in Brooklyn, New York which provides community programming to support technological literacy and fluency for students with special needs. From Friday night workshops to professional development seminars for teachers, the organization offers diverse programming to support its mission to “empower and inspire the next generation of digital natives to learn, create, develop and share the tools of technology in a supporting and nurturing environment.” 

TKU offers a work-based learning program that empowers students to build, create, and explore their own interests, while providing them with both real world skills as well as opportunities to build confidence and social skills, all of which can translate into post secondary success.

is an Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) initiative that seeks to provide high school students with disabilities opportunities to explore careers in technology through community partnerships. The program offers a particular emphasis upon transition and the skills students need to make the transition from school to employment a success.  

With its four-featured approach, the program is unique in that it does not just seek to teach students job skills, but to prepare them for all aspects of making a successful transition to adulthood.  Preparatory Experience, Connecting Activities, Work-Based Experiences, and Youth Development and Leadership are all incorporated into the program design.HS/HT relies upon community partnerships with vocational rehabilitation centers, schools, and business to be a success. Through these partnerships, students have opportunities for mentoring, job shadowing, paid internships, visits to employment sites, and more.

Programs like Sonoma County Office of Education’s Special Education Transition Program exist in school districts across the country and offer a more traditional model for vocational training. In the Sonoma County program, students with disabilities ages 18-22 have the opportunity to work at local businesses and organizations in the community, like hospitals, health clubs, and retail stores, where they learn job skills as well as the social skills they will need to maintain employment, while receiving a paycheck.  

Other independent living skills are also embedded into the program. For instance, students working in different areas of town may learn to use public transportation. As students learn and become more confident in their work positions, they are given increased opportunities for independence, and many end up actually being hired by their employers at the termination of the program.

  • Summer Work Programs like the one offered by the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Division of Vocational Rehabilitation provide high school students with real-life work opportunities before leaving the school system. The program walks students through each and every step of securing successful employment. They even provide students with unique assessments which give them opportunities to “try out” certain jobs, ask questions, and decide what kind of job they would like to pursue. Once the student has decided upon their job, the program teaches them how to do things like create a resume, look for and apply for jobs, and interview.  Students then work around 20 hours per week at their place of employment, earning a paycheck and gaining independence. Throughout the summer, students are supported by a counselor who checks in with them regularly. 

    According to a recent article in the Bismark Tribune, one counselor in the North Dakota program, Angie Parr, is confident that the program can be effective with students with all kinds of disabilities and has been impressed by the results she has seen.

“After they graduate from high school they’re going to have to do something,” said Parr. “It’s amazing honestly to see the sense of pride students get after getting that first paycheck. They can tell their friends at school about their job … It’s an opportunity they may not have had without a program like this because they do need support.” 

In order to participate in the program, students must qualify for vocational rehabilitation services. As more WIOA funding opens up for secondary school students to receive VR services, such programs will likely become more widely available.

As researchers, advocates, and families continue to highlight the dire postsecondary outcomes individuals with disabilities face, policy (
as we saw last week) follows suit, and such programs as mentioned above begin to become increasingly common, more innovative, broad and effective. Investing in vocational training and other programming necessary to ensure that students with disabilities have access to supports they need to make a successful transition into adulthood and into employment is not only in the best interest of these students and of their families, but of the nation as a whole.  Bravo to those organizations and programs that are ahead of the curve in making postsecondary success a reality for students with disabilities.