2001 Conference Proceedings

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PREPARATION THROUGH WORK-BASED LEARNING: STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES SUCCEEDING IN HIGH TECH FIELDS

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D., Director
DO-IT, University of Washington
sherylb@cac.washington.edu 

Sara Lopez , Project Coordinator
CAREERS, DO-IT, University of Washington
lopezsl@u.washington.edu

The 1994 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) revealed that 73.9 percent of people with severe disabilities are not working full- or part-time. Of those adults with disabilities who are working, three out of ten have reported income below the poverty level. Each year, the lack of labor force participation by people with disabilities costs the economy 200 billion dollars (Profit from Our Experience, 1995). Obstacles to equitable participation include lack of exposure to mainstream work experiences, lack of adequate support systems, lack of awareness and access to technology that can increase independence and productivity, little access to successful role models, and low expectations on the part of people with whom they interact (Aksamit, Leuenberger & Morris, 1987; Burns, Armistead & Keys, 1990; “Changing America,”1989). These barriers result in fewer capable students with disabilities completing post-secondary degrees and entering professional careers, especially in high tech fields.

Today, almost all careers require computer use. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the tremendous impact technological innovations can have in helping individuals with disabilities reach their potentials (Anson, 1997; Closing the Gap, 1999; Cunningham, & Coombs, 1997). With recent developments in the area of adaptive technology, there is no reason why talented young people with disabilities cannot find success in high tech fields. People with disabilities who have computer skills can find opportunities in fields that were once closed to them. For example, a blind person with training in information systems can be equally productive as a sighted employee if he has access to technology that provides optical character recognition, Braille, and voice output. A person with no use of her hands can use voice input, head control, and other input methods to control all computer functions.

Having work experiences during school are associated with better employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities (Doren & Benz, 1998). DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) at the University of Washington is working to increase the career success of individuals with disabilities by providing access to technology, career preparation activities, and work experiences that help students with disabilities prepare for success in high tech careers.

DO-IT (DISABILITIES, OPPORTUNITIES, INTERNETWORKING AND TECHNOLOGY)

DO-IT, primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and the State of Washington, serves to increase the success of people with disabilities, especially in fields where they have been traditionally underrepresented, such as science, engineering, mathematics and technology. DO-IT uses technology to maximize the independence, productivity and participation of students with disabilities in academic programs and careers.

DO-IT works with high school teachers, post-secondary faculty, and employers to make programs and resources fully accessible to people with disabilities. DO-IT also helps people with disabilities:

DO-IT activities include:

The DO-IT CAREERS (Careers, Academics, Research, Experiential Education and Relevant Skills) projects work specifically to increase the successful participation of high school and college students in work-based learning programs, such as internships and cooperative education activities. Work experience before graduation is beneficial for all students. It allows them to gain access to specialized facilities not available on campus, apply skills learned in the classroom in a real-world environment, and develop a network of potential employers. For students with disabilities, the benefits of work-based learning are even greater than those of their non-disabled peers. Internships and other work experiences allow students with disabilities to practice disclosing and discussing their disabilities while determining which accommodations are appropriate for particular jobs and employment situations.

CAREERS projects, DO-IT CAREERS-Tech and DO-IT CAREERS/K-12 are both designed to encourage and prepare individuals with disabilities to enter challenging careers and create a model for a continuum of services from K-12 through post-secondary levels. The DO-IT CAREERS projects serve to:

The support and assistance the student receives during each phase of the process has a strong impact on the positive experience of both the student and the employer. Given the limited job experience of many students with disabilities, training must be provided as the student considers applying to a work-based learning opportunity, prepares the application and proceeds through the selection process, and strategies about necessary accommodations or work setting skills.

Efforts to prepare the parents, educators, advisors, counselors and employers are crucial to the success of the student experience. Despite the current interest in a diversified workforce, employers need a better understanding of the diversity within the community of individuals with disabilities. With increased understanding of various disabilities and a higher comfort level working with these individuals with disabilities, employers are able to more effectively recruit, hire and employ persons with disabilities. Presentations and workshops can teach strategies to create accessible environments to recruit individuals with disabilities, explain and clarify the legal issues regarding employment, and increase knowledge about how individuals with disabilities can maximize their contribution in the job setting with accommodations and opportunity.

DO-IT AND WORK-BASED LEARNING PARTNERSHIPS

To achieve our objective of linking students with work-based experiences, DO-IT is building partnerships with existing programs within the schools, colleges and universities, community, and businesses. Many of these programs have common goals and DO-IT is able to bring additional expertise regarding the integration of individuals with disabilities into the programs. These partnerships will expand opportunities for high school students with disabilities in Washington State.

Work-based learning experiences can include mix of learning activities designed to facilitate and broaden the horizons of high school students with disabilities. The high tech industry can easily accommodate adaptive technology that is used in conjunction with traditional computers. These companies are also able to offer experiences that will better prepare students for the pervasive technology influence in many career fields.

Typical work-based learning activities include:

The powerful combination of technology, education, mentoring and work experiences creates avenues for capable students with disabilities to pursue and realize their academic and career goals. Students, parents, educators, and employers can create and take advantage of more work-based learning opportunities, simply by making current programs accessible to students with disabilities. "We do not need to build a system from the ground up. The challenge facing us is to bring existing components together as a coherent whole that serves the needs of all young people" (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1994, p.4). With cooperative efforts students with disabilities can set, meet, and exceed their goals in academic programs and career objectives.

REFERENCES

Aksamit, D., Leuenberger, J., & Morris, M. (1987). Preparation of student services professionals and faculty for serving learning-disabled college students. Journal of College Student Personnel, 28, 53-59.

Anson, D.K. (1997). Alternative computer access: A guide to selection. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis.

Burns, J.P., Armistead, L.P. & Keys, R.C. (1990). Developing a transition initiative program for students with handicapping conditions. Community/Junior College, 14, 319-329.

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.

Closing the Gap 1999 resource directory. (1992). Closing the Gap, 17(6), 41-185.

Cunningham, C. and Coombs, N. (1997). Information access and adaptive technology. Phoenix, AZ: Orynx Press.

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

Hamilton, S.F., & Hamilton, M.A. (1994). Opening career paths for youth: What can be done who can do it. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Youth and Work Program, Cornell University; Washington. DC.: American Youth Policy Forum; and Cambridge, MA: Jobs for the Future.

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

Some of the contents of this publication were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs (#H324M990010), and Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-secondary Education (#P116D990138-01). However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.


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