2002 Conference Proceedings

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EXPANDING WORK-BASED LEARNING: STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES PREPARING FOR CHALLENGING TECHNOLOGY CAREERS

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

Michael Richardson
Coordinator, CAREERS K-12, DO-IT, University of Washington
mike67@u.washington.edu

For people with disabilities, modern technology is seen as "the Great Equalizer," in that it creates a level playing field in the non-disabled world. However, the employment and placement of people with disabilities in challenging careers lags far behind the pace of technological change. A 1998 employment survey by the National Organization on Disabilities revealed that only 32% of working age (18 - 64) people with disabilities work full or part-time compared to 81% of the non-disabled population. More than 65% of those not employed say they would prefer to be working. At the same time, employment opportunities in high tech fields are multiplying and employers are expressing a dire need to find qualified job applicants. Individuals with disabilities represent a large potential pool of high quality candidates to fill this demand, yet only a small percentage of people with disabilities receive high tech training and opportunities. 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.

Today, almost all careers, especially high tech, require computer use. With online networking opportunities and recent developments in the area of adaptive technology, there is no reason why talented young people with disabilities cannot pursue challenging and rewarding careers. 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.

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 works 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 challenging 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:
* use computers, adaptive technology and the Internet;
* prepare for challenging careers;
* transition from high school to college, from two- to four-year colleges, from undergraduate work to advanced studies;
* transition from school to work; and
* gain access to libraries, labs and electronic information resources.

DO-IT activities include:
* Internet, college transition and career preparation;
* a summer study and summer camp programs for youth with disabilities;
* Internet-based mentor support for youth with disabilities;
* peer support through on-line communities of students with disabilities;
* panels, presentations and other leadership opportunities for youth with disabilities; and
* internships, cooperative education and other work-based learning experiences for high school and college students with disabilities.

The DO-IT CAREERS (Careers, Academics, Research, Experiential Education and Relevant Skills) project works 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:
- Increase the knowledge and understanding of students with disabilities about academic programs, employment skills, and career opportunities in technology and business.
- Increase the participation of students with disabilities in work-based learning experiences to develop job skills and prepare for careers.
- Improve the knowledge and skills of parents, educators, advisors, counselors, and employers about capabilities and needs of students and interns/employees with disabilities so they are better equipped to support these students in academic and employment settings.

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 continues to build 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 a 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:
* Site Visits - students visit high-tech businesses to observe operations.
* Mentoring - professionals in science, engineering and technology fields act as career advisors to students with disabilities.
* Work-Based Curriculum - students participate in computer-based career preparation activities, such as identifying personal work skills and developing resumes.
* Job Shadowing - students observe individuals working in their career of interest.
* Guest Speakers - professionals deliver presentations to groups students about their work and companies.
* Summer Camps - students attend a variety of classes related to science, engineering and technology, usually in a college setting.
* Internships - students participate in a time-limited intensive learning experience outside of the traditional classroom in a supervised job setting.
* Co-op Education - students work in trainee positions in you fields of interest and to gain career-related experience as a part of their academic program.
* Service Learning Experiences - students develop as concerned, informed and productive citizens by providing community service in non-paid, volunteer positions.
* Employment - students work in summer and part-time jobs in science, engineering and technology companies.

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. 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.

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.


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