2003 Conference Proceedings

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Lita Jans, Ph.D.
2560 Ninth Street, Suite 216
Berkeley, CA 94710
510-549-6512 (fax)
Email: ljans@infouse.com

Role models are important in shaping students' future expectations, including the range of possible career options. Through role models, young people develop a sense of their own potential, awareness of a variety of careers, and realistic expectations about possible career challenges. Students with disabilities frequently lack exposure to adults with disabilities who work effectively in their careers and cope with workplace challenges.

InfoUse is developing a series of multimedia products, featuring adults with disabilities as role models for transition-age students with disabilities. The products, developed for students, their parents, and education and employment professionals, provide an ongoing opportunity for developing student potential, career awareness and exploration, and an aid to eventual career selection. The multimedia products depict a variety of adult role models, including different ethnicities, disabilities, and a range of careers that require a variety of post-secondary education and vocational preparation.

Eight million students with disabilities face particular obstacles in the transition from school to work. For many students, there is serious difficulty preparing for or finding meaningful job opportunities and careers. Their rate of employment three years after completing high school is much lower than for youth in general. One part of the problem is that students themselves, their teachers, and their potential employers often have low expectations about the opportunities for young people with disabilities in the work place. Relevant role models are frequently missing in the transition planning process. The project delivers role models in media designed to inspire students in their exploration and learning, and to support teachers, employment counselors and employers in working with students. By providing positive role models with disabilities in a wide range of industries, we can improve perceptions of work opportunity and expand choices and job search success for many students.

Transition and employment for youth with disabilities

Over eight million students aged 12 through 21 were served by special education programs in 1998-99 (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). While the transition from school to work is complex for all young people, these students with disabilities face particular obstacles. The high rate of drop-out among students in special education hampers their chances for vocational success; over one-third of students in publicly mandated special education programs leave school prior to graduation (Marder & D'Amico, 1992). Those that go on to complete high school often have serious difficulty finding or preparing for meaningful work. According to the National Transition Longitudinal Study of Special Education Students, just 57% of young people with disabilities were competitively employed three years after completing high school, compared to 69% of youth in the general population. Only 27% of young people with disabilities had enrolled in postsecondary schools three to five years after high school completion, compared to 68% of youth without disabilities (Wagner, Blackorby, Cameto, Hebbeler & Newman, 1993).

The barriers faced by young people with disabilities in completing school and going on to successful postsecondary careers are complex and varied. These include negative expectations of others, including employers, about the capabilities of young people with disabilities. Students identified as disabled by parents and teachers tend to have a lower self-concept than their non-disabled peers, and teachers tend to expect less of them than non-disabled students (Rossi, Herting, & Wolman, 1997). Students with disabilities also tend to have lower expectations for themselves, and are twice as likely as their non-disabled counterparts to have no educational aspirations beyond high school (Horn & Berktold, 1999).

Because teachers and parents frequently expect less from students with disabilities, they may demand less academically of these students than they do of their classmates without disabilities and grade them more leniently (Cunningham, Young, & Senge, 1999). Consequently, many of these young people leave school ill prepared for the demands of the workplace where they will be held to the same standards as non-disabled employees.

Developing both a positive self-concept and realistic career expectations must take place early in the process of preparation for the workplace, when students are forming expectations about their post-high school futures, beginning to explore potential careers, and assessing their own likelihood of success. One strategy that has been used effectively is to introduce students to role models who share students' interests and career aspirations as well as personal characteristics with which students can identify.

Role Models and Multimedia Tools

Educators have recognized the importance of role models in motivating students, making them aware of new career options, rewards and possible obstacles in entering the workforce (Career Options Institute, 1997; Ryan and Harvey, 1999; Guindon, 1993; Smith, Berenson, & Smith, 1981; Fenton, 1981). In particular, role models have been involved in programs designed to encourage students to pursue careers they traditionally have not entered or aspired to. For example, role model exposure has encouraged students with disabilities to consider careers in high technology or engineering, or simply, to realize the possibility of paid employment (Hopkin, 1993; Burgstahler, 1997; Ryan and Harvey, 1999).

Role models can positively influence the career aspirations of young people. Yet, young people with disabilities often have little opportunity to learn from others with similar disabilities who have moved successfully into their chosen livelihoods. Consequently, they lack information about how to cope effectively with challenges and barriers in the workplace.

Exposure to working role models with disabilities has several benefits for students with disabilities. Seeing others with similar characteristics effectively performing their work can help students raise their expectations for their own futures. By observing adults with disabilities at a variety of jobs, students are encouraged to explore a broader range of potential careers. Seeing adults with disabilities interacting effectively with their co-workers and supervisors illustrates the types of social skills needed to function well in the workplace. At the same time, role models who have encountered barriers in the transition process can help young people develop realistic expectations about challenges they may face upon their own entry into the world of work. Further, adults who have successfully used self-advocacy skills to cope with such challenges can impart these strategies to students.

Electronic media offer a significant means to expose students with disabilities to a range of successful, working role models. Both the Internet and CD-ROM have the advantage of accessibility through school libraries and classrooms. These media can present information even when distance isolates students from opportunities for in-person interaction with role models with disabilities. Both can present information about a variety of individuals in diverse careers, as well as information on job requirements, anticipated growth, salaries, and other information on a wide range of occupational choices. They can serve as valuable tools to increase career awareness and encourage exploration of a wide range of career options.


Burgstahler, S. (1997). Peer and mentor support for people with disabilities: An effective use of the Internet. Paper presented at the Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, 1997.

Career Options Institute (1997). Strengthening the School-to-Work Transition for Students with Disabilities. Latham, NY: Career Options Institute.

Cunningham, C., Young, G., and Senge, J. (1999). Advocacy for K-12 Students with Disabilities: How to Get Everything Except a Bad Rep. Paper Presented at the Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, March, 1999.

Fenton, M. (1981). Resource Guide for "The Dream's Not Enough: Portraits of Successful Women with Disabilities." Falls Church, VA: Institute for Information Studies.

Guindon, J. (1993). Enhancing the Self-Concept and Self-Esteem of Upper Elementary Grade Students with Learning Disabilities. Unpublished practicum paper, Nova University, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

Hopkin, K. (1993). The problem solvers: Engineers with disabilities. Science, 260; reprinted at http://www.rit.edu/

Horn, L., and Berktold, J. (1999). Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Marder, C., and D'Amico, R. (1992). How Well are Youth with Disabilities Really Doing? A Comparison of Youth With Disabilities and Youth in General. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International

Rossi, R., Herting, J., and Wolman, J. (1997). Profiles of Students with Disabilities as Identified in NELS:88. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Ryan, D., and Harvey, S. (1999). Meeting the career development needs of students with disabilities. Journal of Career Planning and Employment, 59: 36-40.

Smith, G., Berenson, A., & Smith, S. (1981). Career Planner: A Guide for Students with Disabilities. Alta Loma, CA: Educational Resource Center.

Thayer, T., and Rice, B. (1990) Vocational services in independent living centers: Report from the Study Group. Fayetteville, AR: Arkansas Research and Training Center in Vocational Rehabilitation.

U.S. Department of Education (2000). Twenty-second annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Available: http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/OSEP/.

Wagner, M.; Blackorby, Cameto, J.R.; Hebbeler, K.; and Newman, L. (1993). The Transition Experiences of Young People with Disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

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