Everyone Can Work! Paid Work Experiences for Students with Disabilities

NTACT: the Collaborative
7 min readApr 18, 2019


Ronica Marable, Michael Stoehr, the NTACT Knowledge Development Team

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Work can be an invaluable experience in a high school student’s life; it not only means being able to earn money, but it also promotes a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously fostering autonomy and developing several skills that will be useful after graduation. Students who work in high school develop stronger foundational skills that prove beneficial in moving to adulthood, particularly:

· a more developed social network

· an increased sense of independence

· increased self-confidence and responsibility

Dong et. al (2016) found that early vocational training and employment in an integrated setting can benefit all youth with disabilities. Additionally, they recommended paid work experience opportunities be offered to youth while they are still in high school. Collaboration between school districts and vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies can help ensure that youth with disabilities receive effective transition services.

There continues to be a sizeable discrepancy between the employment outcomes of individuals with and without disabilities. Based upon the March 2019 Disability Employment Statistics from the US Department of Labor for individuals 16 and over:

Labor Force Participation

  • People with disabilities: 21.5%
  • People without disabilities: 68.5%

Unemployment Rate

  • People with disabilities: 7.9%
  • People without disabilities: 3.8%

Students with disabilities do not experience post-school outcomes consistent with those without disabilities (Hinz et. al, 2017; USDOL, 2019). Research shows that students with disabilities are more likely to achieve successful post school outcomes in employment and postsecondary education when they are exposed to paid work experiences before completion of high school (Daviso et. al, 2016; Dong et. Al, 2016; Marquette, 2016, & Cease-Cook, Fowler & Test, 2015). Paid employment can help to close the gap in successful post-school outcomes between students with disabilities and their counterparts.

Paid work experiences give students with disabilities the opportunity to:

· Learn about careers they may be interested in

· Try different work styles,

· Find out what type of work they enjoy

· Discover how they learn in a job setting, and

· Find out what natural supports are available

In addition to promoting growth at the individual level, paid work experiences help school systems as they have been shown to improve postschool outcomes for students with disabilities (Cease-Cook et al., 2015)

Take a look at what is happening in some states…


Student Summer Work Programs

Alaska has developed a number of paid summer work programs in a variety of communities throughout the state. Most programs are 4–6 weeks long and provide students with valuable work experience. Program content varies depending on the community but all programs afford students the opportunity to learn valuable career skills in a paid summer employment opportunity. http://www.labor.state.ak.us/dvr/transition-summer-work.htm


Summer Work Experience Program (SWE)

For the past four years the Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation system has implemented a statewide summer work-based learning experiences in a competitive integrated setting program for students with disabilities. This program was provided in collaboration with approved Missouri VR Community Rehabilitation Programs (CRPs). In the 2018 program 28 CRPs participated. During last summer’s program (2018) 683 students from 158 schools participated at 203 sites throughout Missouri.

Students surveyed at the end of the 2018 program indicated the following:

1. Did you like your job? 97% said yes

2. Would you recommend to a friend? 96% said yes

3. Were you offered employment? 73 students indicated that they were offered jobs

The following video provides an outcome summary of the Missouri SWE program:



Career Transition Program

Jazmique Gore, Kenny Heards, and Natalie Kuban. Youth employed through the Career Transition Project (Photo courtesy of The United Way of Allegheny County)

United Way of Southwestern PA’s 21 and Able Career Transition Program has been very successful in assisting students and adults with disabilities find employment in 8 of some of the largest employers in southwestern PA. Over 5 years, over 500 individuals with disabilities have gained competitive employment. Because of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and subsequent ACT 26 law in Pennsylvania, more OVR counselors and school district transition coordinators in Western Pennsylvania are working together and focused on paid work experience. There is a lot of awareness of this project and the job opportunities available for students and recent graduates.

To learn more, visit: uwswpa.org/21-and-able/

Additional Resources

· NTACT Competitive Integrated Employment Toolkit

The NTACT Competitive Integrated Employment Toolkit (CIE) has been developed as a framework to assist State and local teams in collaboratively implementing transition services to improve post school employment outcomes for students with disabilities. The Toolkit is organized in four sections; 1) CIE the Desired Outcome; 2) Transition Services: An overview of the five required activities of pre-employment transition services included in WIOA, as well as secondary transition service requirements found in IDEA and Evidence Based Practices in each area; 3) Interagency Collaboration: Effective practices that support the cross agency and State, community, school and student level collaboration necessary to provide secondary transition services; and 4) Professional Development: information and resources useful in developing skills necessary for both education and vocational rehabilitation professionals. The toolkit will function best, if you take a moment to create your login at www.transitionta.org, to access all of the resources available in the CIE Toolkit.

· NTACT School Based Enterprise Toolkit

This toolkit from NTACT provides a rationale for the use of school-based enterprises as one way to provide students with career development opportunities in high school. The toolkit provides numerous resources and examples for planning, implementing, and succeeding with school-based enterprises that address the development of skills and are planned and run by students.

· NTACT — Quick Guide: Preparing Students for Competitive Integrated Employment

The NTACT Quick Guide for Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE) provides an overview of CIE and its relevance for secondary students with disabilities and provides links to resources that may be useful for administrators, practitioners, family members, or youth.

· NTACT Guide to Developing Collaborative School-Community-Business Partnerships

This guide developed by NTACT and TransCen, Inc. addresses the frequent challenges that schools often face when creating partnerships with businesses and other community partners in trying to develop meaningful, quality work-based learning experiences for students with disabilities.

· Project SEARCH has a transition to work program with a remarkable success rate for placing students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in paid employment that is both rewarding to them and valuable to their employers. The program has been so successful that it has grown from its original site in Cincinnati to over 200 sites across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia. WEBSITE: https://www.projectsearch.us/transition-to-work/

· Start on Success (SOS) is a structured school-to-work program for students with disabilities pursuing a standard or advanced studies diploma to better prepare for the workforce and postsecondary education. SOS is a year-long program designed to provide classroom instruction during the first semester and a paid internship at a local business during the second semester of the student’s senior year. The program is operated by the Pittsburgh Public School System in partnership with the workforce system, the vocational rehabilitation agency, and local employers, and provides paid internships for high school students with disabilities at collaborating employers and offers a pipeline of skilled employees to meet workforce needs.

WEBSITE: https://centerontransition.org/about/sos.html

FLYER: https://centerontransition.org/documents/SOS%20Marketing%20Flyer%20-%20with%20Alt%20Format.pdf

· Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities — The Bridges to Work Program matches the workforce development needs of local employers with the skills and interests of motivated young people. Find program information and local opportunities: http://www.bridgestowork.org/


Cease-Cook J., Fowler, C., Test, D. W. (2015). Strategies for creating work-based learning experiences in schools for secondary students with disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 47, 352–358.

Daviso, A. W., Baer, R. M., Flexer, R. W., & Meindl, R. (2016). Career and technical education, work study, & school supervised work: How do they impact employment for students with disabilities? Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 47(2), 10–19.

Dong, S., Fabian, E., & Luecking, R. G. (2016) Impacts of school structural factors and student factors on employment outcomes for youth with disabilities in transition: A secondary data analysis. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 59, 224–234

Hinz, S. E., Arbeit, C. A., & Bentz, A. (2017). Characteristics and Outcomes of Undergraduates with Disabilities: Web Tables. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018432.pdf.

Marquette, J. (2016). Workforce Innovation and Opportunity for youth with ASD and developmental disabilities. Exceptional Parent, 46(10), 25–27.

Nochajski, S. M., & Schweitzer, J. A. (2014). Promoting school to work transition for students with emotional/behavioral disorders. Work, 48, 413–422.

Southward, J., & Kyzar, K. (2017). Predictors of competitive employment for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 52, 26–37.

U. S. Department of Labor (USDOL) (2019). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics-2018. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm.



NTACT: the Collaborative

NTACT:C is a Technical Assistance and Dissemination project, funded by the OSEP and the RSA, Cooperative Agreement Number H326E140004.